The Campaign Trail

The Campaign Trail

During the Democratic primary season, Sen. Barack Obama proved himself to be not only a formidable candidate, bringing down the powerful Clinton machine, but also one of the best fundraisers in American political history. Key to that success was the small, online donations he received from more than 1 million supporters. Citing that his campaign is “truly funded by the American people,” the now presumptive Democratic nominee recently announced his decision to opt out of public financing for the general campaign. Days later, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who has had a more difficult time raising campaign funds, cried foul, launching a Web ad called “Words” that charged his opponent with breaking a pledge to both him and the American people.

Political hypocrisy or smart move? According to Democratic strategist Julian Epstein, the Illinois senator had no choice. Public campaign funds come from the $3 voluntary check-off on federal tax returns. This year it would provide each candidate with approximately $84 million.

Obama contends that he will need more than that to respond to attacks from conservative independent groups and 527s, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who opposed Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. These groups do not have spending limits.

“I think a lot of Republican money is going to fall into 527s and they will be the engines of the politics of fear. Obama will need to have an equal amount of resources to be able to get his positive message out,” Epstein says. “The reality is the public financing would have limited him.”

Republican strategist Ron Thomas argues that Obama’s explanation for not accepting public financing is disingenuous. He says, “I just don’t buy into the whole thing that he’s just now realizing he needs to have the dollars to combat the 527s and Republicans. It takes money to run a campaign, but I think it’s intellectually dishonest to expect people to think that Obama didn’t know these things were going to happen.”

Freeing himself from the constraints posed by public financing will also enable Obama to expand his options and be more competitive in various states. “It will allow him to expand the electoral map by devoting resources to a number of states where Democrats have not actively campaigned in recent elections, such as Virginia and Georgia,” says The Brookings Institution fellow Anthony Corrado. Last week Obama’s campaign launched its first general election television ad in 18 states across the nation, many of which President George W. Bush won in 2004. “His campaign has also stated that they’re planning to put staff in all of the states, which I think is going to help him to change some of the Electoral College map and put further demands on the McCain campaign to decide whether they’re going to have to spread out their resources or remain focused on a handful of 15 to18 battleground states that were the focus of the last two presidential elections,” Corrado adds.

He also believes McCain will not regret going with public