For the first time since the nation launched its grand experiment with publicly financed presidential campaigns three decades ago, major-party nominees in 2008 are expected to turn down all public funds.
The reason: The grant, expected to be $83.8 million, might not be enough to run a winning campaign.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) is the first top-tier candidate to tip her hand that she intends to leave the public money on the table. Senior Clinton advisor Howard Wolfson said by e-mail Sunday that she would not take matching funds in the primary campaign or, if she wins the Democratic nomination, in the general election.
On her campaign website, Clinton suggests that donors give her $2,100 for the primary and another $2,100 for the general -- a sign that she won't seek matching funds in the general election. Candidates who take public money in the general election must forgo fundraising.
Using her contacts and those of President Clinton, Sen. Clinton raised nearly $40 million for her 2006 Senate race, showing she could tap moneyed interests in New York and California, two deep wells of Democratic funds.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Election financing: An article in Section A on Monday about presidential campaign fundraising said that Ross Perot did not use public money when he ran for president. Though he used personal funds in his 1992 campaign, Perot accepted $29 million in public funds when he ran again in 1996, according to the Federal Election Commission.
"She'll do fabulously" in the money race, said Sacramento lobbyist Darius Anderson, who helps Democrats raise money and is a business associate of one of Clinton's backers, Los Angeles billionaire Ron Burkle. "The Clinton network and the Clinton list is by far the most extensive of any Democrat."
Abandonment of the public financing system would threaten the survival of a Watergate-era measure that was supposed to limit the influence of big donors in presidential politics and enable more candidates to compete.
If major candidates walk away from public financing, "it really calls into question why it exists at all," said Federal Election Commission Chairman Robert D. Lenhard, a supporter of the system.
The system is being rendered obsolete by escalating campaign costs, sophisticated fundraising techniques, tepid public support and major candidates such as Clinton who could raise $100 million on their own before the first 2008 primary -- and $500 million by election day.
There are efforts to revive the system. "It is a reversal, but not necessarily a fatal reversal," said Steven Weissman of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, among the groups pushing to rescue public financing.
But it remains to be seen whether the heavy spending forecast for 2008 will, as public-finance advocates predict, trigger public disgust and lead to changes.
Until then, "to be considered a top-tier serious candidate almost by definition means you're not going to be participating in the public financing system" in either the primary or general election campaigns, said Democratic consultant Chris Lehane of San Francisco, who worked in the Clinton White House.
As originally envisioned, the matching funds system offered candidates a deal: In exchange for voluntarily limiting their spending, the federal government would provide them with tax money to defray primary campaign costs and relieve them of having to raise money in the general election.
Taxpayers pay for it by checking a box on their income tax forms earmarking $3. But despite outcries against the influence of private money in politics, the concept has not caught on with the public. At its height in 1980, 28% of taxpayers marked the box. Now, not even 10% ask that part of their taxes be used for presidential campaigns.
It's a system that seems almost quaint in an age of Internet fundraising and in the face of other laws that have the effect of opening the way for big campaign spending. Though $83 million seems huge, it might pale by comparison with the sums that candidates could raise from private sources -- increasing the likelihood that nominees would leave the public money on the table.
"It is mind-boggling," said Washington political consultant Jeffrey Bell, a Republican who supports public financing.
A few past candidates have turned down public money for primary campaigns rather than agree to limit their fundraising, a precondition for getting the taxpayer largesse. Ross Perot and Steve Forbes didn't need it; they used personal wealth. In the 2004 primaries, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) raised more money than would have been permitted had they used matching funds.
But in every general election campaign, beginning in 1976 when Jimmy Carter beat President Ford, the nominees have accepted matching funds. In 2004, the FEC gave $75 million each to Kerry and Bush. With an inflation adjustment, the grant will exceed $80 million in 2008 -- if anyone takes it.
"The nominees of both major parties are likely to turn down public money for the general election for the first time in history, and raise private contributions for both the primary and the general," Commissioner Michael E. Toner said in an interview.