Sometimes, prosperity can be a sign of failure. Take the $292 million pot of taxpayer dollars that politicians are refusing to touch. For years after the public fund for presidential candidates was established in 1974, the biggest worry for its minders at the Federal Election Commission was whether there would be enough money for all the candidates. Now, despite a sharp decline in the number of people participating in the $3 tax return check-off that funds the program (down from a high of 28 percent in 1977 to less than 6 percent last year), the fund has been growing steadily – because candidates don’t want the money anymore. Former president George W. Bush began the exodus from the public finance system in 2000, when he refused to take matching funds for the primaries and caucuses. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first candidate to decline public financing in the general election. This year, only one presidential contender sought and qualified for public financing: Martin O’Malley, who has already dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination. Even Bernie Sanders, who has made limiting the political influence of the wealthy a central tenet of his campaign, has no intention of taking public financing. Under questioning by NBC’s Chuck Todd at a debate in New Hampshire last week, he called the program “a disaster,” adding: “Nobody can become president based on that system.”
And so, the funding mechanism devised after the Watergate scandal to prevent the unseemly spectacle of candidates for the nation’s highest office cadging funds from well-heeled special interest pleaders is “basically dead,” says Ken Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies public campaign finance systems.
The reason has nothing to do with altruism on the part of office-seekers, or concern about the public debt. Public financing has grown unpopular with presidential candidates because the amount of money it offers them, which is indexed to inflation, hasn’t kept up with the torrid pace of campaign giving or the ingenious ways that private donors have discovered to insert themselves into campaigns.
There are now more than 5,800 political action committees and nearly 1,500 super PACs, entities that, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, collected more than $100 million in the last six months of 2015, much of it in seven-figure donations. Not to mention an untold number of so-called “dark money” organizations that, because of their tax-exempt status, never have to disclose their donors. In some cases, they don’t even disclose their existence until after they spend money to influence a campaign.