Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Obama and Public Financing

On March 1st, 2007, it was widely reported, we'll take this NY Times story as an example, that Senator Obama and Senator McCain each "pledged" to take public financing for the general election. Fast forward a year later and no one, not even Senator Obama himself could have anticipated how well his fundraising campaign has done. When the pledge was made to accept 85 million dollars to run the general election campaign, it looked like a heap of money. Fast forward a year later and Obama alone has raised nearly half that sum, in the month of March 2008.

So Obama faces a tough spot. He has made a promise to campaign with public funds, and now he is looking at being able to raise 2-4 times more than that. That kind of fund raising would better McCain by at least double. This would allow Obama to blanket swing states with television ads, longer and stronger than McCain. But if he goes back on his pledge he will be seen, rightly to some extent as a liar, or at least as someone who takes the political advantage over being the change candidate he promises to be.

So what to do? The answer lies as it often does in Hillary Clinton's decision. If Hillary makes good on her promise to fight all the way to the convention, this primary fight will go on all the way to the end of August. That being the case, Obama can make an argument that will sound something like this...

John McCain has been running a general election campaign since February, while I have been fighting Hillary. We need the extra funds to jump start the campaign and fight against a candidate that has been sitting back waiting for an opponent all summer. I cannot and will not silence the voices of all those small donors who have been such a big part of my campaign.

Now if Hillary sees the writing on the wall and quits in mid-may I don't see how Obama could do anything but accept public financing. And that's OK. With the convention so late in the year relative to November, he can continue to raise and spend a huge amount of money defining himself positively on television for months and months before the end of the August when he finally has to pull the plug and go with public financing. He gets all the benefits of staying genuine, and fighting the fight he promised. He fights for September and October on a level playing field after blitzing the country for months.

The bottom line is people care less about campaign finance when you have all these small donors. He can turn this to his political advantage. John McCain needs to worry less about what Obama decides to do for the general and worry more about why his coffers are so low.

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