Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Presidential Primary Reform Week: Two Birds, One Stone

This is part two in a series of posts this week dealing with presidential primary reform. As a refresher you can also look at FHQ's earlier synopsis of several of the various reform proposals that have been talked about and/or considered. The maps are a little clunky, but will suffice for now. I'm planning a revamping of them in the not too distant future. You can also find part one (National Primary with a Twist) here.

A couple of months ago I got an email from Matthew Sanderson (former McCain-Palin campaign finance counsel) with another innovative idea for presidential primary reform. Up until now, I didn't know what to do with it, but since the news on reform has quietly ramped up of late (more coming later in the week), I have an opportunity to put Mr. Sanderson's idea out there. Here's the premise as Matt laid it out to me. [As always, you can read the full proposal here -- a forthcoming article in the Virginia Journal of Law and Politics. It is a pdf file, but is freely available. And yes, it's a lengthy read, but is chock full of great background research.]

Two Birds proposes a package of reforms that would pivot the Public Funding System away from its current emphasis on spending limits and retool it to combat frontloading in the presidential nomination process. The proposed reforms include: (1) delaying the System's matchable-contribution and disbursement dates until October 1st of the pre-election year and April 1st of the election year, respectively; (2) forcing candidates to compete for a single pool of funds, with no guaranteed maximum or minimum amount; (3) transforming the general-election grant into a matching-funds program, similar to that currently used during the primary-election period; (4) eliminating the grant to political parties for national conventions; and (5) creating new, unconventional benefits for public funding participants, such as automatic ballot access.

First of all, if you thought the FairVote plan discussed yesterday was ambitious, it has nothing on Matt's plan to overhaul not only the presidential nomination process but to fix campaign finance as well. Also, there's more to it, but for our purposes I'll try to focus on just the frontloading and presidential primary finance mechanisms. If you have thoughts on the other portions of the proposal feel free to sound off in the comments section.

At face value, I love this idea. As the title implies, two birds (frontloading and campaign finance), one stone (well, several small stones thrown together really). The entire idea is predicated on motivating the presidential candidates -- especially the main contenders -- to opt into the changes to the campaign finance system and that states' hands will be forced as a result, moving them into compliance vis a vis primary and caucus scheduling. That's not necessarily a complicated process, but getting there would be a real battle. Let's put the pieces together:

1) Move the matchable contribution date from January 1 to October 1 in the year prior to the election and move the disbursement date from January 1 to April 1 of the election year. I can buy that. If contributions are not matchable until the October prior to primary season kicking off and matching disbursement checks are not handed out until April of the election year, then participating candidates would be unable effectively campaign in many states earlier than April. As such, states would be motivated to shift to a point in the calendar when candidates would and could actually pay them some mind.

That's all well and good, but how do you get candidates to opt in? That's the big question, right? Fixing frontloading, as detailed here, can only be fixed if the major candidates accept the terms of the enhanced system.

2) Well, that piece of the puzzle is dependent on a handful of factors. First, the stick. If you opt in as a candidate, you are in for both the primary phase and the general election phase. None of this opting out for the primaries and crawling back in for the general election (see Bush, George W., Kerry, John and McCain, John). But there's also the carrot (multiple ones actually). First, participating candidates can take advantage of a cap-less pool of money and can do so to the detriment of their opponent. That is, instead of the $160+ million cap on 2008 general election funds for example, there would be no cap. On top of that, if you raise more than your opponent, you get more than your opponent. Furthermore, if your opponent goes it alone outside of the proposed system, you get everything in the pool. Oh, and there is a 4:1 matching fund ratio to sweeten the deal.

Not bad, huh?

No, it isn't. But the one problem I have with all of this is this: What if, as a candidate, you know you can out-raise your opponent and what he or she can gain from the new system? Even if Barack Obama had ceded the entire $168 million in federal money to John McCain in 2008, the then-Illinois senator still would have been able to out-raise/out-spend the Arizona senator. But that's somewhat underhanded of me. This system applies to both the primaries and the general election. Obama didn't necessarily know in February 2008 that he could outdo McCain financially in the general election. He would have been more concerned with Hillary Clinton at the time. More to the point, he would have been interested in how he'd stack up financially compared to the former First Lady. Would the promise of matching money in the fall have been enough pie in the sky to bring Obama to the table in the Two Birds-One Stone system? Perhaps.

Here's the thing: The more I think about this, the more I think of how perfectly it would have worked in the 2008 environment. But what about other elections? If you're an incumbent and see a close election on the horizon, maybe you'd jump in (Bush 2004), but if you saw a comfortable win coming, you might just as soon opt out (Clinton 1996). Well, that's a fair number of elections right there. It is and we haven't even tackled the open seat elections. Opting in in those cases would be conditional as well, though. In 2008, sure, this system likely would have worked. I can see Clinton and Obama and McCain opting in. But in 2000, I don't think so. Gore and Bush were heavy favorites and would have quickly eschewed the parameters of this system. Both were comfortable frontrunners who were fine with the status quo in both the primaries and general election.

The key would be getting this up and running and strategically, you'd be better served doing it ahead of an open seat presidential election with no clear frontrunners. Maybe that's 2016, maybe it's not. But you would face a major obstacle in pushing this when an incumbent who can raise lots of money is running for reelection and can shun the system. Of course, I have Obama in 2012 in mind as I'm writing this. But that money could very well dry up to some extent if the economy isn't trending in the right direction by then.

But if the candidates don't buy in, then we're right back to square one with campaign finance and frontloading.

Interesting stuff, Matt.

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