Washington — Although Americans running for political office need money, and lots of it, to pay for campaigns, political expert Sam Garrett says successful fundraising alone cannot determine a candidate’s outcome at the polls.
“By no means is money a guarantee to success in an election,” Garrett said March 16 in remarks on campaign finance at the Foreign Press Center in Washington. Garrett is a specialist in American national government for the Congressional Research Service as well as a lecturer and fellow with American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington.
“If a candidate just isn’t out there making a connection with voters, then the candidate isn’t going to be able to buy his or her way into office,” he said, adding that “no amount of money” can make up for a flawed candidate.
However, Garrett acknowledged that American campaigns tend to be fairly expensive — more and more so with each election cycle. He said that in 2008, President Obama’s campaign raised about $750 million when he was the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. His opponent, Republican Senator John McCain, raised between $300 million and $400 million.
Garrett said that in recent elections, the average winning candidate for U.S. Senate had raised between $7 million and $8 million, while the average winning candidate for the House of Representatives had raised between $1 million and $2 million.
“Of course, those figures can vary a lot,” Garrett said. “Some candidates can win with much less, some candidates can lose but with spending a lot more.”
He said money has played an increasing role in elections in recent years as the cost and importance of media advertising, as opposed to traditional door-to-door campaigning, have risen. To fund this advertising, as well as months of campaigning to make themselves and their views more visible to voters, candidates rely on political contributions.
Recent legal rulings have opened new avenues for political spending by corporations, unions and nonprofit organizations. Even though many Americans find objectionable the central role money plays in politics, others counter that supporting a candidate or an issue of their choice financially is a form of free speech.
Garrett said the right to free speech, protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution, does indeed limit the degree to which political spending can be regulated. But all candidates are subject to regulations by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), an independent regulatory agency created in 1975 to administer such reform efforts as limiting campaign contributions, facilitating disclosure of campaign contributions and overseeing public funding of presidential elections.
PUBLIC CAMPAIGN FUNDING
After registering with each state’s secretary of state to be placed on the ballot, a candidate’s campaign committee must disclose to the FEC all contributions received and expenses disbursed.
To qualify for public funds, a presidential candidate must raise more than $5,000 in each of 20 states. In addition, the candidate must agree to spend the public funds only for campaign-related expenses, limit spending to amounts set by campaign finance law, keep records, cooperate with audits and pay any civil penalties that are imposed by the FEC.
Eligible candidates during the primary season can receive matching public payments for the first $250 of each individual contribution they receive. Their total receipt of public funds cannot exceed half the national spending limit for the primary campaign. That limit is adjusted each presidential election year to reflect inflation. The 2012 primary limit is $45.6 million, paid from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.
For the 2012 election, individual contributions to a presidential candidate are limited to $5,000 during the election cycle — $2,500 for the primary and $2,500 for the general election. Additionally, the campaigns are required to identify anyone who contributes more than $200.
A candidate winning the party’s presidential nomination is eligible to receive a grant to cover all general election campaign expenses. Also adjusted for inflation, this grant is $91.2 million in 2012. At this level, a nominee who accepts the funds must agree not to solicit private contributions and to limit campaign expenditures to the amount of public funds received. This public funding is voluntary: A candidate can forgo it in favor of continuing to solicit private contributions with the hopes of raising more money for such activities as television advertising.
The American electoral system is accustomed to political action committees (PACs), which are private groups that can raise up to $5,000 from individuals to support particular candidates or issues. The 2012 elections are the first to have so-called “super PACs,” which are allowed to raise an unlimited amount of money from donors who can choose to remain anonymous. Although these organizations are not allowed to donate directly to individual campaigns or coordinate with candidates or political parties, the super PACs can use as much money as they can collect to promote whatever they like and attack their political opponents.
Garrett said that while many people believe the current election cycle “has marked drastic changes in the style of campaigning and fundraising,” it’s still too early to tell how the most recent round of campaign finance regulations will affect the election season.