McCain: The Matching Fund Quandary

A minefield awaits Sen. John McCain if he asks his campaign to accept federal matching funds for the primary.

There are two significant limitations that come with the roughly $6M that the federal government would pay McCain. One is that McCain would not be able to raise money beyond the limits proscribed by the system. That's about $50M. If the nomination contest is wrapped by Feb 6., Mr. McCain will be out of money. The Democratic nominee may find him or herself in a similar predicament, but they have the option of raising and spending as much as they want between February and their late August convention. McCain could raise nothing. And therefore could spend nothing. He would rely on the good graces of the national media to ensure that at the very least, he gets to respond to the Democratic presidential nominee. But he won't be able to campaign. He wouldn't be able to build a field organization for the general election, relying instead on the Republican National Committee to conceive, fund, and construct the entire GOTV apparatus. (Forget about RNC soft money ads. Um, McCain-Feingold prohibits them.) He probably couldn't even campaign. Outside allies in the party? They don't like McCain.

This is an argument that McCain's opponents will make to reporters and to wavering Republicans: by accepting federal matching funds, McCain will put himself at a distinct disadvantage if he wins the nomination. The Democrat, in other words, would have an edge.

More importantly for the primaries, taking the federal match imposes limits on what McCain can spend in the early primary states. It's roughly $1.5M in Iowa, where it costs at least $4M or so to run a solid campaign, $820,000 in New Hampshire, and about $2M in South Carolina.

So what are the upsides? For one thing, McCain will have no choice but to act as an ill-funded but entirely principled insurgent-change-agent in the general. The word "scrappy" comes to mind.

And one benefit of being John McCain is that the media will always, always, always listen to what you have to say. If he's silent from February to August, the media will restore his voice, even if they have to stake out his Arlington, VA home and interview him in his breakfast slippers.

This isn't a gamble, because gambling implies a choice. McCain was forced into this situation by contingency. If he recovers, it won't be because he raises money, it'll be because the attributes that Republican primary voters want in a nominee align suddenly with his own. McCain is a known commodity; his public image remains, despite everything everyone everywhere may thing, fairly solidly defined and one that some of his opponents secretly envy.

I hesitate to cite history, but I am not aware of an election where public image alone has carried a nomination.