Institute Forum

Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Applaud Shift in Focus June 4, 2009

Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Applaud Shift in Focus

Barack Obama's election win last year changed the conversation about campaign finance reform, with the emphasis now at least as much on increasing the number of small donors as on limiting the amount of spending in politics, according to experts who spoke June 4 at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

For more:

Audio (Full)
Michael Malbin's presentation (text and tables)
Video of Michael Malbin's presentation
Blair Horner's slide presentation
Video of Blair Horner's presentation
Video of Question-and-Answer session

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Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C., and Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, both said that change in emphasis was a positive sign.

"A small-donor system is more likely to reflect the interests of the public at large," Horner said.

Malbin, who is also a professor of political science at the University at Albany, said a push toward more small donors is part of the Campaign Finance Institute's interest in promoting more citizen participation in the election process.

When running for president, then-Senator Obama exemplified one longstanding trend that troubled some campaign finance reform advocates: to win the presidential election, he raised more money and spent more money than other candidates. But Malbin and Horner pointed out that he also did something dramatically different from previous presidential candidates in raising the funds from a wide base of supporters that included a remarkable number giving under $200 each.

According to Malbin, 49 percent of contributions to Obama were for $200 or less, with 26 percent of the money coming from those who gave $200 or less. (The different numbers reflect the fact that many people gave multiple contributions to the Democratic senator, with the sums ultimately topping $200.)

Malbin characterized these statistics as heading in the right direction — though he said they did not yet go far enough.

"Obama's numbers are pretty impressive compared to other presidential candidates," Malbin said. "But when I look at them compared to a vision of what I'd like to see in participation as a whole among people, I'd like to see more."

Replicating Obama's success with small donors will be a challenge for other candidates, either at the national or state level, Malbin said. Candidates, including Obama, are not typically able to attract small donations until they have raised their visibility — often with the help of larger donors. What's more, it is easier to attract small donors in a presidential race than in legislative races, Malbin said, and easier to do so on a national level than in a state or local contest.

"You don't get to do this kind of small-donor mass outreach until you have visibility, until you're credible," Malbin said. "You need some kind of launching pad."

Looking at state donor statistics, Malbin shared numbers that showed New York political campaigns to have what he called a "remarkably low participation rate" among small donors. In 2006, just 3 percent of the money to candidates for state office came from donors who gave $250 or less. Forty percent of the money came from individual donors who gave $1,000 or more, with 13 percent coming from party affiliates and 39 percent from other organizations.

Echoing Malbin's comments about small donor participation in New York campaigns, Horner further suggested that corruption — a persisting target of reform efforts — remains a problem in New York's campaign finance system.

"New York has a dialing-for-dollars system, and it really is, in my experience, tied in with the people who have business with government," he said.

Horner was optimistic about state leaders' expressed interest in changing the system through legislation. New York Governor David Paterson and leaders in the state Assembly and Senate have all said they support "sweeping reform" of the system.

"That's never happened before," Horner said about officials' agreement on at least the concept of reform.

Malbin praised one aspect of three legislative proposals being considered in New York — they all provide public money to candidates. But he also said that each proposal has substantial flaws. For one thing, they all set limits on candidates' spending. Under the U.S. Constitution, participation in public financing laws with spending limits must be voluntary, and Malbin said candidates are unlikely to accept the caps in order to receive the money.

"You cannot expect a candidate to commit political suicide just to get public funds," he said.

Malbin recommended that New York legislators consider the structure of bills proposed in the U.S. Congress for congressional campaigns. One bill would require candidates to qualify for public funds by first meeting a threshold of private fundraising. Candidates would then receive a grant of public funds, then public funding to match their own fundraising. Participating candidates would have to agree to donations of $100 or less, but the bill imposes no total spending limit. The second federal bill — a not-yet-introduced proposal for presidential campaigns — would use matching funds for the primaries but would permit candidates who have received the maximum amunt of public funds to continue raising and spending money in amounts no larger than $200.

"To my mind, both of those federal bills involve an intellectual paradigm shift. Instead of stopping and restricting, in both of them, the new emphasis is on empowering and enabling ...," Malbin said. "That is a welcome change. Legislative majorities will not come easily in this area in the short term, but I do look forward to where this new paradigm might take us in the end."


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.