Opinion: Obama’s fundraising success could well mean the death of public financing


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Barack Obama toyed with the idea of entering the public finance system. He even signed a public pledge that he would work to create public funding should he ever become president.

But with his announcement early Sunday morning that he’d raised more than $150 million just in September alone, Obama may well have killed the system that he claims to support. Some experts now suggest the once powerful idea backed by political reformers will just fade away.


Its demise would come courtesy of mass fundraising over the Internet -- a concept that did not exist back in the Watergate era, when the presidential public financing system was created.

By opting out of the government financing system — the freshman Illinois Democrat is the first candidate to do so since its establishment in 1976 — Obama is free to raise and spend unlimited sums.

So, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

While Republican Sen. John McCain is limited to the $84.1 million in public money he agreed to.

“Being awash in funds allows [Obama] to fight in a lot more states without having to make tough choices,” said political....

...scientist Bruce Cain, director of University of California’s center in Washington, D.C.

Obama is spending in Republican states and is shelling out huge sums for 30-second TV spots that air in Democratic bastions via national programming, including football games and the baseball playoffs.

The Wall Street crisis appears to have had little effect on Obama’s small-time donors. He expanded his fundraising base by 632,000 individuals in September to a record total of 3.1 million -- most of whom gave in small amounts. Roughly half of the $605 million Obama has raised has come from small donors, and nearly all of them give over the Internet.

McCain, meanwhile, accepted the $84.1-million grant from the Federal Election Commission. Even though the Republican National Committee is paying for much of his campaign, McCain increasingly is unable to compete moneywise.

A year ago, before he attained front-runner status, Obama signed a pledge to the group, Common Cause, in which he vowed to push for “full public funding for qualified candidates who agree to spending limits and to stop accepting private contributions.”

“I will make passage of such legislation one of the primary goals in my campaign and in my presidency if elected,” Obama said in response to a Common Cause questionnaire.

Whether such legislation comes to pass is now uncertain at best.

Public funding schemes rarely win support from Republicans. Now, Democrats, many of whom also are skeptics, will have less interest. Democratic donors tend to be younger than Republicans and are more accustomed to making Internet purchases.

ActBlue, a company and political action committee based in Cambridge, Mass., has used the Internet to raise $74 million for Democratic federal and state candidates and causes since 2004. Copycat efforts by the GOP have fallen far short.

Obama’s success at Internet fundraising extends to other campaigns on the Democratic side. Opponents of Proposition 8, the initiative that would ban same-sex marriage in California, say they are raising large sums over the Net.

“My guess is that this system will just go away,” Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said. “The public financing system is basically the horse and buggy of politics.”

-- Dan Morain

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