Thursday, October 30, 2008

Internet Campaign Financing- The Ordinary Citizen may be Back in the Game!

Whoever wins this election next Tuesday, there is one thing that is almost certain to dominate the discussion about electoral politics on a national level: unprecedented massive amounts of money!

However, while recent national politics has had a focus on money and campaign reform, the emphasis has been on the influence of corporate money in elections. Almost all of us have bemoaned the fact that 'big money interests' have shut out the average American citizen's concern - to the point where, it had come to be believed that there is no way possible that citizens can have any credible influence because no 'ordinary Joe' (no I'm not going to say it!), can make that type of contribution.

Not this year!

Barak Obama's fundraising has been nothing short of phenomenal. The Center for Responsive Politics, puts the total contributions received at $639 million! Most of it from over the Internet and most of it from small gifts from individual donors. John McCain has so far raised some $360 million. That's just under $7 million dollars than President Bush raised in 2004. Nothing to sneeze at to be sure, but just over half of the Obama campaign and he is at a distinct financial disadvantage in this campaign.

There are those who have said that the Obama campaign's efforts and success will not only break records, but it will also break the system. Others have said, that hidden in these gargantuan numbers are contributions of much larger amounts that should be questioned, if not investigated. The McCain/Palin campaign, crying foul, have said that Obama reneged on a promise to sit down and negotiate on whether or not he would take public campaign money.

It is more than obvious what happened: Obama saw his success at fundraising via the Internet during the primary season and saw the troubles that McCain would have in financing his campaign - he decided 'all's fair in love and campaign fundraising'. Now if you consider that dirty campaigning, misleading or outright lying, you're probably right and we know that nothing like that has happened on the other side!

But I think that there is something else that may be a little more important than charges that Obama is trying to 'buy' the campaign, especially if it's true that 48% of contributions to the Obama campaign come from donors giving $200 or less: this means that the ordinary citizen now has a financial voice in national politics. Can that be a bad thing?

According to the Washington Post, "These huge sums are not, as some have suggested, evidence of the pernicious return of big money to federal campaigns or of the failure of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. That worthy measure ended the unhealthy practice of candidates, including presidential nominees, soliciting wealthy individuals, labor unions and corporations for huge checks, often $1 million and up. Much of Mr. Obama's money has arrived in small donations; in any event, donors are limited to a maximum of $4,600 ($2,300 each for the primary and general election). Mr. Obama's haul reflects the enormous enthusiasm his campaign has generated...the real-world risk of vast sums of illegal money sloshing around the Obama campaign is negligible."

There are some questions about McCain's fundraising strategies as well and it will take time to weigh through the pros and cons of we have seen this election cycle. But before we castigate either McCain or Obama, let's admit that if the current trend holds, whether or not you can 'afford' to run for office, could come to depend on one's ability to appeal to the general electorate at least as much as one's ability to appeal to the wealthy.

Maybe George Will (yes THAT George Will) says it better than I can:

"McCain revived a familiar villain -- "huge amounts" of political money -- when Barack Obama announced that he had received contributions of $150 million in September. "The dam is broken," said McCain, whose constitutional carelessness involves wanting to multiply impediments to people who want to participate in politics by contributing to candidates -- people such as the 632,000 first-time givers to Obama in September."

"Why is it virtuous to erect a dam of laws to impede the flow of contributions by which citizens exercise their First Amendment right to political expression? "We're now going to see," McCain warned, "huge amounts of money coming into political campaigns, and we know history tells us that always leads to scandal." The supposedly inevitable scandal, which supposedly justifies preemptive government restrictions on Americans' freedom to fund the dissemination of political ideas they favor, presumably is that Obama will be pressured to give favors to his September givers. The contributions by the new givers that month averaged $86."

"One excellent result of this election cycle is that public financing of presidential campaigns now seems sillier than ever. The public has always disliked it: Voluntary and cost-free participation, using the check-off on the income tax form, peaked at 28.7 percent in 1980 and has sagged to 9.2 percent. The Post, which is melancholy about the system's parlous condition, says there were three reasons for creating public financing: to free candidates from the demands of fundraising, to level the playing field and "to limit the amount of money pouring into presidential campaigns." The first reason is decreasingly persuasive because fundraising is increasingly easy because of new technologies such as the Internet. The second reason is, the Supreme Court says, constitutionally impermissible. Government may not mandate equality of resources among political competitors who earn different levels of voluntary support."

It could be that the 'ordinary Joe' (no I am not going to say it!), is back in the game.

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