Richard Davis: Do we really want four years of campaigning?

Published: Wednesday, April 10 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., son of Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, speaks to members of the media after a Republican presidential debate at the Chubb Theater.

Matt Rourke, AP

It's starting again. Rand Paul is visiting early primary states. Hillary Clinton has a new book out and is on the lecture circuit. Rick Perry will decide on a run for president in the next few months. It is hard to believe the calendar says April 2013 when prospective 2016 presidential candidates already are out running. Why do we have a near constant campaign for president?

A major reason candidates start so early is the imperative to fund-raise. The combined cost of the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012 was over $1.1 billion. 2016 prospective candidates must start early to raise the funds needed to compete effectively in the primaries and the general election. That means spending the next three years soliciting donations.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Presidential campaign reforms in the 1970s were designed to limit the reliance on fund-raising. Presidential primary matching funds offered a match for funds raised by the candidate (with some caveats). And general election grants gave the two major party nominees a ready-made campaign fund that allowed them to concentrate on campaigning rather than fund-raising.

But a few presidential candidates learned they could win by avoiding federal primary election matching funds and the general election grants and raising their own funds from primarily large donors. However, the down side is lengthy campaigns necessary to raise funds and the campaign's obsession with fund-raising. That isn't even including the new dependence by candidates on wealthy individuals who either serve as fund-raisers for the candidate or give millions to the super PACs working on the candidate's behalf. Two-thirds of the money raised by the presidential campaigns directly came from large individual contributions donated by wealthy individuals.

Campaigns are expensive because of the amount of money dedicated to advertising. Nearly three-quarters of that $1.1 billion in 2012 was spent on media buys — television, radio, Internet, etc. The vast majority of the advertising budget is devoted specifically to television advertising. The media budget not only pays for the actual ads, but also the media consultants who receive big bucks providing services to candidates.

Must it be this way? Are there possible solutions to this?

One possible reform is to require broadcasters to air party or candidate television and radio commercials and then severely limit the purchase of paid political commercials. That would provide candidates with access to voters without having to raise the large sums necessary to pay for those commercials. Candidates would not spend as much time raising money if they could still contact voters without doing so. It would also mean fewer commercials on the airwaves since the numbers allocated to candidates would be far less than the number candidates attempt to buy. And candidates would be on a more level playing field in their ability to reach voters.

Another possible change is raising the amount for the general election fund to provide an incentive for candidates to use the fund rather than raise money on their own. For example, last year's grant would have been $91 million for each candidate, a paltry amount compared to what the candidates raised. Similarly, the amount of airtime could be connected to the use of the general election grant. Candidates who use the general election grant are allocated, say, twice as much time as those candidates who don't.

Ultimately, the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed unlimited amounts of money to be spent on campaigns by anonymous donors must be overturned. It has created a campaign environment heavily dependent on money and has forced candidates to spend several years begging prospective donors for funds and forming relationships with less accountable super PACs dominated by a few wealthy individuals.

If our campaign finance system is not reformed, the nation will face another four years of presidential candidates spending hours each day chasing donors to give large contributions to their campaigns so they can be competitive with other candidates who are doing exactly the same thing. And one of those people will be the next president of the United States. Is that what presidential campaigns should be all about?

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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