The federal program providing public money to presidential campaigns is dying.
Going into next year's elections, taxpayer participation is at an all-time low, the funds available are a pittance compared with what candidates can raise themselves, and the only candidates eligible this year will probably be hard-line anti-government conservatives who might not take them anyway.
When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama decided against taking money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund — and the accompanying limits on outside contributions — during the 2008 election, he was the first major-party nominee to opt out of the program since it was established in the 1970s.
The Obama campaign went on to raise more than $750 million for his election. His opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), raised about half that amount but was limited to spending about
$84 million in the general election after accepting public financing.
Obama's success has set the stage for a 2012 campaign in which serious contenders must raise hundreds of millions of dollars more than public financing provides, meaning the fund will only benefit dark-horse candidates who have little money and little chance of winning a general election.
"If the system isn't repaired to draw in the larger-scale candidates — if no one who is going to be raising and spending a lot of money is going to be participating — you only end up passing out money to the middle-tier or lower-tier candidates," said Scott E. Thomas, head of Dickstein Shapiro's political law group and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
There was about $200 million in the fund as of January — a number that is only a fifth of what the Obama campaign is expected to raise in his 2012 re-election bid — and its main source of revenue is dwindling.
Since the 1970s, taxpayers have had the option to check a box on their annual tax return that directs a small amount from the government's general fund to the campaign finance fund. Since 1993, the checkoff has been $3 per person. But after peaking at a participation rate of
28.7 percent in 1980, just 7.3 percent of taxpayers elected to check the box in 2010.
Experts say the dwindling participation rate is not indicative of how taxpayers feel about public campaign financing, as polls consistently show widespread support. But taxpayers have mistakenly believed that checking the box adds to their tax liability, a misconception the government has not made a major effort to dispel.
In addition, some believe taxpayers are beginning to realize the fund no longer matters.
"After the 2008 election, prospective taxpayers have to ask themselves, 'Who is using this checkoff?'" said Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute. "Most of the serious candidates are opting out of the public financing system because of hopelessly antiquated spending limits, so the money is going to candidates that the typical taxpayer would not support."
There are already 13 confirmed primary candidates for the 2012 election, including Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If each one elected to use public financing in the primary stage of the election, they would be eligible to receive federal matching funds for the first $250 of any individual's contribution, provided the candidate accumulated at least $5,000 in such donations in 20 different states.
In the 2008 primaries, during which McCain and Obama opted out of the public financing system, the maximum amount a primary candidate could receive was about $21 million. Four years earlier, participating candidates received a total of $28.4 million, according to the FEC.
Given that in this election cycle the majority of candidates raising money for the primaries will be coming out of the GOP, which has consistently supported the elimination of publicly financed presidential campaigns, it's unclear how many will seek federal matching funds.
"For many of them, it's going to be a philosophical issue," Thomas said. "You can sort of see how being tied to taking any sort of government resources might be a political issue in the eyes of the Republicans these days.