When Barack Obama's campaign announced its mammoth $150 million haul for September, my first thought was "I wonder if Republicans will start calling for public financing of elections now?" A big reason for the right's dominance over the last thirty years has been their ability to outraise the left, and with that dominance seemingly diminished, I was wondering if they might seek to limit the left by bringing campaign finance reform back into play.
I wasn't alone, though Publius takes a somewhat different tack to the question than I did. Publius's point, and it's a good one, is that republics succeed when you're able to factionalize them to such an extent that no one faction is able to take complete power. The Republican party is a good example of that right now. The choice of Sarah Palin as running mate was clearly a pander to the social conservatives of the party, the faction that has dominated their electoral politics for a generation now. Fiscal and social moderates were let out in the cold, and may well provide Barack Obama with a landslide victory as opposed to a small one.
So it goes with financing elections--the more donors, the less influence any one donor has. Howard Dean made that point in 2004 (and I have a post in mind that will discuss Dean's part in the Democratic Party resurgence), that with such a large base of donors, no one owned him. The same is true with Obama to a point. There are still powerful people who can raise large sums who will have his ear, but their power is diffused somewhat by the online machine.
But here's where I differ from Publius. What can work on the large scale of presidential politics won't necessarily work on the smaller scale of Congressional or Senatorial politics. The biggest problem I see in the Congress is the incumbency advantage. Name recognition isn't the problem, either--it's something any challenger will have to overcome, and there's no structural way to do so. But how many times have we heard jokes about Congresspeople or Senators being corporate representatives? Joe Biden, who I have gained a lot of respect for in the last couple of months, is seen as a voice for the credit card industry because that industry has a lot of sway in his home state. John Dingell belongs to the auto industry. And the list can go on and on. In Congressional and Senate races, corporations have too much power, and public financing can do a lot to break that power.
Because Congressional districts are smaller, a corporate-backed bundler can have a lot more influence in terms of fundraising than any combination of grassroots organization can hope to compete with. Obama pulled off this amazing feat because he had a huge source to pull from--probably somewhere near 70 million people will vote for him this October and November (as I just did--four hours in line)--and while his campaign has gotten money from well over a million people, that's a small fraction of the people who will cast votes. If you're running in a district that represents 600,000 people, the same options aren't always open (unless you're running against a mouth-breather like Michelle Bachmann). A corporation who can suggest to its executives to dump a couple of grand apiece into a congressional election has a lot more sway in a smaller universe.
So while Madison's point might hold true for national elections, and even state ones where the state is populous enough, it doesn't work in smaller cases, and I think that is enough reason to continue to push for public financing of elections.