NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Financing of Presidential Campaigns Losing Support

January 13, 2004

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress created a system of public financing for presidential campaigns. Since its inception in 1976, taxpayers have paid $2 billion to fund the primary and general election campaigns of candidates in the two major parties and qualifying independent and third party candidates. Today that system is in trouble, facing insolvency and diminishing support, says a new Cato Institute report.

  • Originally, a check-off on income tax forms directed $1 to the presidential fund; later, the sum was increased to $3.
  • The percentage of tax filers participating has declined steadily; it was once as high as 28 percent, but by 2000 it had dropped to just over 10 percent.
  • By 2008, it is likely that twice as many Americans will be contributing directly to political campaigns as will check off the tax-form box; only 5 percent of taxpayers are expected to participate in the system.

Any candidate who takes public money for the financing of their campaign must agree to a spending limit of $45 million. Nonparticipating candidates are allowed to raise unlimited funds and are not limited in the amount they may spend.

If most serious presidential contenders go outside the public funding system, the program will continue to exist but only as a source of support for guaranteed losers, says the author.

Source: John Samples, "The Failures of Taxpayer Financing of Presidential Campaigns," Policy Analysis No. 500, November 25, 2003, Cato Institute.

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