Why So Few Candidates Use the Presidential Election Campaign Fund

Public Funding of Presidential Campaigns is Dead

Donald Trump Victory Party
Donald Trump holds an election night victory party in New York City early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is a voluntary, government-run program whose mission is to publicly fund federal elections. It is subsidized by a voluntary check-off that appears on U.S. income tax return forms as the question: "Do you want $3 of your federal tax to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?"

In the 2016 presidential election, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund allocated about $24 million for each primary candidate who chose to accept public funding and limits on spending and $96.1 million to the general election candidates. Neither of the major-party candidates, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, accepted the public funding. And only one primary candidate, Democrat Martin O’Malley, accepted money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

Use of Presidential Election Campaign Funds 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 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.

History of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund

The Presidential Election Campaign Fund was implemented by Congress in 1973. Democratic and Republican nominees who receive at least 25% of the national vote in the prior election cycle receive a fixed amount; third party candidates may qualify for funding if the party received more than five percent of the national vote in the prior election cycle.

The two national parties also receive funds to defray the cost of their national conventions; in 2012, that was $18.3 million each. 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.

Why Public Financing Is Failing

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 and 2012.

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, Democratic U.S Sen. Barack 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.