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Public Financing May Need Another Look

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Barack Obama's rejection of public financing has become an attack line for the McCain campaign. John McCain told "FOX News Sunday" he's concerned about future elections.

(Soundbite of TV show "FOX News Sunday")

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Nominee): What's going to happen? The dam is broken. We're now going to see huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal.

MONTAGNE: But to explore the question of whether the system of public financing adopted as a post-Watergate reform strategy is now dead, we turned to Anthony Corrado. He's a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and an expert on campaign finance. Thank you for joining us.

Professor ANTHONY CORRADO (Government, Colby College): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Bottom line, does public financing of presidential campaigns have a future?

Professor CORRADO: As it stands now, the public funding system doesn't have much of a future without reform. The conventional wisdom coming out of this election is going to be Barack Obama made the right choice in opting out of the system, because he gained a major strategic advantage in this race by being able to outspend John McCain by a large margin and not having to make decisions about where to spend limited dollars, which has limited the scope of the McCain campaign.

MONTAGNE: The Obama campaign has made much of the fact that three million donors have contributed at an average amount, as of September, of $86 per donor. Is the Internet the new face of public financing?

Professor CORRADO: Well, it's certainly the case that the Obama campaign can make the argument that they're running the kind of campaign that the advocates of the public funding program sought when they reformed the law after Watergate. He has by far the broadest base of donors we have ever seen in a presidential campaign. On the other hand, the advocates of public funding would argue that he still relies heavily on some of the large donors, bundlers who bundle large numbers of checks to raise a hundred thousand dollars or more for the campaign. And so they're arguing that that's one of the concerns they still have.

But it's also the fact that the Obama campaign is in some ways in a unique position given the fact that we have this political climate that's so favorable for his fundraising. So there's still a question as to whether other candidates are going to be as successful as he is.

MONTAGNE: Well, what would be reforms that would make public financing work the way it was intended?

Professor CORRADO: One idea that has gained support is the idea of now using some of the public funds to increase the power of the small donor and encourage more small donors to give, so that we set up a system in the primaries where, for example, $4 of public money is matched to every $1 of a small contribution of less than a hundred dollars. It's a type of system they have used in New York City, and it's met with great success in terms of increasing the number of small donors.

The tougher nut is in the general election, trying to figure out how do you now establish an amount that would be substantial enough to entice candidates to accept it? In particular, one of the issues that Congress is going to have to confront is if one candidate decides to take the public funding and another opponent decides not to take the public funding, should there be some sort of additional funding given to the publicly funded candidate in order to help him remain competitive.

MONTAGNE: Do you actually believe, though, that the system can be fixed? I mean, is there the political will?

Professor CORRADO: That's the biggest hurdle. There will be many who believe that given the model of the Obama campaign, candidates who have support can now raise the money they need, and there's no need for the subsidy. It is also the case that there are many Republicans in Congress who just as a matter of principle oppose the use of tax dollars for funding political campaigns. In addition, budget problems are going to be at the top of Congress' agenda. So it's really going to be a difficult test that the next Congress is going to face if we're going to get some type of change in the law.

MONTAGNE: Political scientist Anthony Corrado is a professor of government at Colby College. Thanks very much.

Professor CORRADO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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