How well did the presidential public funding program work?
It worked well for several years. But it was only going to work well for a longer time if Congress made a point of maintaining it, which it did not do. The problem began with the same Congress that voted for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund in 1974. It kept the same $1 checkoff amount that Senator Long had put in his 1966 law, and did not index it for inflation. Congress did increase the $1 checkoff to $3 in 1993—but still did not index it to inflation.53
Two other dollar figures that Congress did not index for inflation were the $1,000 contribution limit and the $250 limit on contributions to qualify for matching funds. By 1996, twenty years after the first publicly funded presidential election, $1,000 was worth about $300 and $250 was worth less than $80. Had those dollar amounts been indexed for inflation, they would have been raised to $3,000 and $800. In 2002, Congress increased the contribution limit to $2,500, and did index it to inflation.
As one election followed another, the declining value of the dollar meant that the public funding program was less and less able to meet its primary goal of protecting candidates from the need to raise private funds. Opponents of public funding did not need to mount an open attack because the program was gradually hollowed out by congressional inaction. It was an example of policy drift, which political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson call "the fine political art of producing change by doing nothing."54
As public funds shrank, private money ballooned. The independent expenditures the Supreme Court said could not be limited rose quickly in the 1980s, the huge majority of them on behalf of Republicans. Soft money, which was raised outside the FECA, first appeared in 1980 and eventually replaced independent expenditures as the way to raise and spend private money in publicly financed elections. The sharp rise in soft money spending in 1996 and 2000 led campaign-finance experts to conclude that presidential campaigns were conducted as much outside FECA regulations as within them.55
It was only a matter of time before a major party candidate would decide not to take public funds. Texas governor George W. Bush was the first to do this, by opting out of the matching-funds program for the primaries in 2000.
Bush was still stuck with the $1,000 limit, but he made the best of that situation by recruiting business executives, venture capitalists, lawyers, and lobbyists into a fundraising network called the Pioneers. Each Pioneer promised to raise at least $100,000 in hard- money contributions from their many connections. The network was a rousing success, raising more than $90 million—almost twice the $49 million Vice President Al Gore was able to raise with matching funds.56
As president, Bush did the same thing for his reelection campaign in the 2004 primaries. But this time, so did the eventual Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who followed Bush's lead by recruiting his own fundraising network. The 2004 election was the first in which both major party nominees had opted out of public funding for the primaries.57
By then Congress had passed the McCain-Feingold Act, which raised the contribution limit to $2,500 and indexed it to inflation. But the program was already in such steep decline that even one of the bill's sponsors, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), opted out of it for the 2008 primaries. It was not much of a surprise, then—however disappointing to reformers—when McCain's Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama (D-I L), opted out of the program entirely in 2008. In fact, in 2012 all major party nominees opted out of the program entirely. The presidential public funding program is still in effect, but for all practical purposes it ended years ago.58