By opting out of the public financing system as he did Thursday, Democrat Barack Obama is hoping to guarantee himself a huge financial advantage over Republican John McCain in the fall.
And he’s betting he won’t suffer lasting damage with voters for making himself the first presidential candidate to reject public funds and the accompanying spending limits in a general election.
Obama, who said last year that he would accept public financing if his Republican opponent agreed to do so, justified his widely expected move on the grounds that the system “is broken, and we face opponents who’ve become masters at gaming this broken system.” The decision, he said, was “not an easy” one.
The presumptive Democratic nominee said he needed the extra money - beyond the $84 million he’d receive from the federal treasury - to respond to “the smears and attacks” likely to come from independent groups able to collect and spend unlimited amounts of money.
Now, he’ll be able to spend as much as he can raise, which increases his strategic options.
McCain, known for his backing of campaign finance legislation, first indicated Thursday that he wasn’t sure whether he, too, would opt out. By afternoon, though, he told reporters in Minnesota: “We will take public financing.”
Along with the Republican Party and other groups, McCain blasted Obama for opting out, saying that the Democrat “has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people.”
Said Republican National chairman Mike Duncan: “Obama’s decision is what we’ve come to expect from a candidate whose rhetoric is nothing like his record, and it undermines his own claims to represent a ‘new’ kind of politics.”
Obama has said that his fundraising effort, which has relied heavily on small donors, is in keeping with “the spirit” of public financing. The system was established in 1976 in reaction to the Watergate scandal.
Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine, said there’s some substance to Obama’s claim.
“He offers the prospect of a campaign based on small donors, which was one of the goals of the Watergate reform,” Corrado said. “That diminishes some of the concern people might have.”
But Fred Wertheimer, President of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan watchdog group, pointed out that “larger contributions and bundlers already have played an important role in financing the Obama presidential primary campaign and may well do so in the general election.”
By any standard, Obama’s fundraising has been extraordinarily successful. As of the end of April, he had raised $265 million from more than 1.5 million donors, many of whom made their contributions over the Internet.
Of the $265 million, about $10 million is general-election money. The Obama camp is confident that it will be able to raise far more than the federal number.
The McCain campaign, which has devoted considerable time and effort to fund-raising in the last month, has generated $115 million on its own, none of it for the fall campaign.
Assuming he takes part in the federal system, McCain will receive $84 million upon being nominated in early September. The money comes from the $3 checkoff on the federal income tax form.
Once he takes the money, though, that’s all he can spend on his campaign in the roughly nine weeks between then and Election Day.
Numerous candidates, including Obama, McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, have rejected the federal matching funds available in the primary, largely due to the state-by-state spending limits than come with the money.
But no one has refused the big government check for the general election.
John Siegal, a New York lawyer and longtime advocate of public financing, said Obama would not pay a political price for opting out of a system that doesn’t provide enough money for a state-of-the-art national campaign.
“I say sadly but realistically that the public really doesn’t care about this as an issue that drives voting decisions,” Siegal said, pointing to the success of self-financed candidates who didn’t participate in public finance systems: “Look at (Gov.) Jon Corzine in New Jersey and (Mayor) Mike Bloomberg in New York.”
Friday, Obama begins running his first television commercial of the general election campaign in 18 states, a biographical ad in which he talks about his roots, his values, and “a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.”
It will run in such obvious battlegrounds as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio and in several Republican states Obama hopes can become battlegrounds - such as Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota and Virginia.
McCain’s current commercial emphasizes his differences with the Bush administration over climate change, saying he “stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming ... five years ago.”
The first ad, which is no longer on the air, highlighted McCain’s military background and his 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.