NEW YORK — A cornerstone of U.S. politics since the 1970s, public funding of presidential campaigns may soon go the way of other relics of the era like long sideburns and lava lamps. Neither President Barack Obama nor any of the leading 2012 Republican contenders is expected to accept federal matching funds and the limits they impose.
In fact, opting to take public money to finance a presidential campaign this year is likely to be seen as the mark of a loser.
"I would be shocked if they took matching funds. I don't think that it's a successful model this time, or in the future," says GOP strategist Carl Forti. He's been an adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and helped run American Crossroads, an independent group that raised millions to defeat Democratic candidates in 2010.
Obama's record-breaking fundraising in the 2008 campaign allowed him to abandon the public system in both the Democratic primaries and the general election. With his success as a benchmark, top-tier Republican candidates now are planning to go it alone.
The president, who has no Democratic primary race, may become the first candidate to raise $1 billion for the general election in 2012.
Republicans in a wide field must battle each other for the party's private donors. But the emergence of free-spending independent political groups — since the Supreme Court in 2009 cleared the way for unlimited corporate spending in campaigns — is expected to help close the imbalance between Obama and the GOP. Several of the Republicans also have immense personal wealth.
Presidential candidates of both parties once relied on money from the U.S. Treasury as an indispensible part of their budgets. Indeed, the ability to qualify for matching funds was considered an indication of a candidate's strength after the system was put in place following Watergate-era fundraising abuses. The system was intended to reduce candidates' dependence on large contributions from individuals and groups.
Money for the program comes from a voluntary $3 checkoff on Americans' income tax returns. The fund currently contains $195 million, which can be used only for presidential primary and general election campaigns and to subsidize the major parties' nominating conventions.
Over time, the program began to weaken. George W. Bush refused public funding in his 2000 and 2004 presidential primary campaigns but did accept the money in the general election. Several candidates in both parties opted out in the 2008 primaries, but others did accept matching funds, including Democrat John Edwards.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, turned down matching funds for the primaries but then took them in the general election — a move that severely hindered his ability to compete financially with Obama.
For this year's serious GOP candidates, refusing federal funds will be both liberating and daunting.
By refusing matching funds, candidates are potentially forfeiting a lot of money. Edwards received nearly $13 million in matching funds in the 2008 primary, and Joe Biden, now the vice president, accepted over $2 million for his primary run. McCain, the winner of the GOP nomination that year, accepted $84 million in federal funds for the general election, but that barred him from any private fundraising. Obama opted out of the system and raised $264 million.
Among the likely Republican candidates this time:
— Romney, a multimillionaire, turned down public funds in 2008. He raised $66 million and lent his campaign $44 million before eventually dropping out.
He's expected to enter the 2012 field soon and has begun assembling a list of "bundlers" who have been asked to raise $25,000 apiece. He has told donors he hopes to take in $50 million for the primaries — less than his 2008 run but an ambitious figure nonetheless. He has not indicated how much of his personal fortune he will commit.
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hopes to raise $30 million for the primaries, his advisers say. Gingrich has long solicited funds for several organizations including the independent American Solution for Winning the Future, which raised and spent $28 million in 2010.
— Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has a strong national fundraising base from his years as a lobbyist and as chairman of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association. His advisers say he plans to refuse federal matching funds and has set a goal of raising $55 million for the primaries.
— Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty hopes to raise about $25 million for the primaries. Advisers say they don't believe he would accept matching funds. Pawlenty's campaign has deployed a 16-member national fundraising team aimed at starting an aggressive fundraising push April 1. He also has raised $4 million for three separate political action committees.
Other potential candidates have been less clear about their plans.
— Real estate developer Donald Trump says he will decide by June whether to join the field. Like Romney, he is very wealthy and has vast business connections.
— Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is expected to launch a campaign sometime this spring when he returns from China, where his is serving as U.S. ambassador. Huntsman has abundant personal wealth.
— Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite weighing a run, raised more than $13 million for her 2010 re-election campaign and has a strong national fundraising base. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is also considering a run and is popular among many social conservatives.
— Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin are weighing bids but are considered less likely to run. Both have strong fundraising connections.
The big Republican field is off to a late start. Most 2008 contenders were in by early 2007 and were able to raise money in the first quarter of the year, between January and March. Most this time won't start until the second quarter, beginning April. 1.Comment on this story
"We have a very different environment than we did in 2008," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign fundraising. "These candidates have all shown they have a proven ability to raise money. The problem is, if you have half a dozen or more relatively well-known Republicans running around, there is only so much cash to go around."
Some of the GOP-favoring private groups may get involved in the primaries, raising and spending money on behalf of candidates or targeting others for defeat. But many are likely to save their firepower for the general election.