The 2012 battle for the GOP presidential nomination is heating up, and underdog candidates are grabbing the spotlight as marquee candidates continue to play coy about their political intentions.
Harvard University professor and campaign finance activist Lawrence Lessig is on a tear boosting long-shot GOP presidential hopeful Buddy Roemer for the candidate’s quixotic campaign finance pledge.
Lessig, who runs a pro-regulation group that pushes for tax financing of congressional campaigns, is praising the Reagan Democrat because of Roemer’s pledge to only accept individual contributions to his presidential campaign of $100 or less. Roemer has also pledged to report every donation, even though federal law only requires reporting donations of $200 or more.
“As much as I hoped, I never realized he was this good,” Lessig gushed Tuesday after Roemer tested out his stump speech Monday at a multi-candidate forum hosted by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, an influential conservative group.
“Electability should not be discussed in terms of who can raise the most money, but rather who has the best ideas to raise America,” said Roemer, who supported strict campaign finance regulations as governor. “Today, I declare my independence from moneyed special interests.”
Roemer, a former Louisiana governor and congressman, is free to run his campaign any way he likes. There’s no doubt his pledge will be popular among many in the press and left-leaning interest groups. But is the federal campaign finance system really so corrupt?
In the 2008 cycle, President Barack Obama, who became the first general election candidate in decades to reject a tax subsidy, raised $656,357,572 in individual contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The federal contribution limit then was $2,400 ($4,800 including the primary cycle). A donor who maxed out to President Obama’s campaign represented a mere 0.0000073% (less than a hundred thousandth of a percent) of President Obama’s total haul. That level of support cannot possibly corrupt a candidate.
In 1987, Roemer limited contributions to his gubernatorial campaign to $5,000, or about $9,700 in today’s dollars. Perhaps he’s more easily corrupted now than he used to be.
Compare Roemer’s holier-than-thou pledge to the underdog campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. In McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, the liberal hero had at least five contributors who gave $100,000 or more, according to Herbert Alexander’s “Financing the 1968 Election.” The book notes that McCarthy also received a $500,000 contribution in the pre-nomination period.
Wealthy, anti-war liberals sought a candidate who could take down incumbent President Lyndon Johnson and end the Vietnam War. General Motors heir Stewart Mott pitched in $210,000. Wall Street executive Jack Dreyfus and his wife gave between $100,000 and $500,000. McCarthy raised some $2.5 million ($15 million in today’s dollars) from fewer than 50 contributors.
McCarthy’s campaign initially struggled to be taken seriously, but as the money poured in, McCarthy was able to expand his base of support and amplify his message, swelling his donor list to about 150,000 people. McCarthy raked in $500,000 at one event at the New York Waldorf-Astoria and then shuttled to $5-10 coffees around the country.
This mix of high-dollar donations fueling the grassroots machine propelled McCarthy to within striking distance of the nomination, although he ultimately failed. There is little doubt, though, that McCarthy would not have been able to marshal such a powerful political movement — his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary effectively ended Johnson’s campaign — without the early infusion of unlimited donations from wealthy fellow travelers.
In contrast, Roemer’s 2012 campaign — perhaps just as eccentric as McCarthy’s bid seemed in its early stages — faces little prospect of emerging beyond the fringes of cattle call forums in early primary states. Roemer may share the stage with the frontrunners for a few months, but he won’t be able to wage a serious presidential campaign, which requires communicating with hundreds of millions of potential voters in the modern media landscape, at $100 a pop.
Roemer, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican during his term as governor, faces a Republican base hostile to campaign finance regulation as an infringement on First Amendment rights. Democrats and liberals, meanwhile, largely support campaign finance regulation as a crucial curb on corruption.
Unfortunately for Roemer, his campaign finance stance effectively eliminates any chance he might have at being a realistic contender for the Oval Office, no matter his current party affiliation.
Jeff Patch is Communications Director for the Center for Competitive Politics.