About the Presidential Election Campaign Fund

How Public Funding of Presidential Campaigns Works

Sarah Palin and John McCain
Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and presidential nominee John McCain are the last two major-party candidates to have accepted public financing for their campaign.

  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is a government-run program whose mission is to help candidates for the highest elected office in the United States pay for their campaigns. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is financed by taxpayers who voluntarily contribute $3 of their federal taxes to publicly financing presidential campaigns. Donors to the fund contribute by checking the "yes" box on their U.S. income tax return forms in answer to the question: "Do you want $3 of your federal tax to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?"

Purpose of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was implemented by Congress in 1973 following the the Watergate scandal, which in addition to the now-infamous break-in at Democratic Party headquarters involved large, secret contributions to President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. Congress intended to limit the influence of big money and donors on campaigns and level the playing field between presidential candidates.

The two national political parties, at one time, also received money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to pay for their national conventions, which are held to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates; in 2012, $18.3 million went to the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Before the 2016 presidential conventions, however, President Barack Obama signed legislation to end the public funding of nomination conventions.

By accepting Presidential Election Campaign Fund money, a candidate is limited in how much money can be raised in large contributions from individuals and organizations in the primary run. In the general election race, after the conventions, candidates accepting public financing can raise funds only for general election legal and accounting compliance. The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is administered by the Federal Election Commission.

Few Taxpayers Are Willing to Give $3

The portion of the American public who contribute to the fund has shrunk dramatically since Congress created it in the post-Watergate era. In fact, in 1976 more than a quarter of taxpayers—27.5 percent —answered yes to that question. Support for public financing reached its peak in 1980, when 28.7 percent of taxpayers contributed. In 1995, the fund raised nearly $68 million from the $3 tax checkoff. But the 2012 presidential election it had drawn less than $40 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. Fewer than one in ten taxpayers supported the fund in the presidential elections of 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Candidates who claim their share of financial support must agree to limit the amount of money they raise and spend on their campaigns, restrictions that have made public financing unpopular in modern history. In the 2016 presidential election, neither of the major-party candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, accepted public funding. And only two primary candidates, Democrat Martin O’Malley of Maryland and the Green Party's Jill Stein, accepted money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

Use of Presidential Election Campaign Fund has been declining for decades. The program can't compete with wealthy contributors and super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the race. In the 2012 and 2016 elections, the two major-party candidates and the super PACs supporting them raised and spent $2 billion, far more than the publicly run Presidential Election Campaign Fund offered. The last major-party candidate to accept financial support from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund was John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who lost his bid for the White House against Democrat Barack Obama. McCain's campaign accepted more than $84 million in taxpayer support for his campaign that year.

The public-funding mechanism has outlived its usefulness in its current form and needs to be either overhauled or abandoned altogether, critics say. In fact, no serious presidential aspirant take public financing seriously anymore. “Taking matching funds has really been seen as the scarlet letter. It says you’re not viable and you’re not going to be nominated by your party,” former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner told Bloomberg Business.

Candidates who agree to accept money from the fund must agree to limit spending to the amount of the grant and may not accept private contributions for the campaign. In 2016, the Federal Election Commission offered $96 million to the presidential campaigns, meaning the candidates - Trump and Clinton - would have been limited to spending the same amount. Both campaigns, which declined to participate in public funding, raised far more than that in private contributions. Clinton's campaign brought in $564 million, and Trump's campaign raised $333 million.

Why Public Financing Is Flawed

The idea of financing presidential campaigns with public money stems from the effort limit the influence of influential, wealthy individuals. So to make public financing work candidates must adhere to restrictions on the amount of money they can raise in a campaign. But agreeing to such limits puts them at a signification disadvantage. Many modern presidential candidates are likely to be unwilling to agree to such limits on how much they can raise and spend. In the 2008 presidential election, Obama became the first major party candidate to reject public financing in a general presidential election.

Eight years earlier, in 2000, Republican Gov. George W. Bush of Texas shunned public financed in the GOP primaries. Both candidates found the public money unnecessary. Both candidates found the spending restrictions associated with it too cumbersome. And in the end both candidates made the right move. They won the race.

Presidential Nominees Who Took the Money

Here are all the major-party presidential nominees who elected to fund their general-election campaigns with money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

  • 2016: None
  • 2012: None
  • 2008: Republican John McCain, $84 million.
  • 2004: Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry, $75 million each.
  • 2000: Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, $68 million each.
  • 1996: Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Bill Clinton, $62 million each, and third-party candidate Ross Perot, $29 million.
  • 1992: Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, $55 million each.
  • 1988: Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis, $46 million each.
  • 1984: Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Walter Mondale, $40 million each.
  • 1980: Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter, $29 million each, and independent John Anderson, $4 million.
  • 1976: Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, $22 million each.