Since 1976, the federal government has drawn money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to match up to $250 of an individual’s contribution to each eligible candidate. If you’ve filled out your own taxes, you are probably familiar with the check-box asking if you want to donate $3 to the fund.
As the Federal Election Commission explains:
To qualify for public funding, Presidential candidates and party convention committees must first meet various eligibility requirements, such as agreeing to limit campaign spending to a specified amount. Once the Federal Election Commission determines that eligibility requirements have been met, it certifies the amount of public funds to which the candidate or convention committee is entitled. The U.S. Treasury then makes the actual payments from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. This fund consists of dollars voluntarily checked off by taxpayers on their federal income tax returns.
Presidential candidates have the choice to receive matching funds from U.S. taxpayers to help fund their campaigns, or opt to go it alone. In the past, as is the case now, failed presidential candidates often end up having to pay off significant debts. As a result, candidates in past elections would say they were “suspending” their campaign, so they could lay off staff and stop spending money, without having to actually give up federal money. In effect, they used taxpayer money to help bail out their failed campaigns.
Primary candidates who accept federal matching funds agree to a spending cap of $200,000 in every state. And with states as ideologically diverse as California and Texas, and as politically important as New Hampshire versus, say, Wyoming, it makes little sense for candidates today to agree to those caps.
“It’s the same amount in every state, which makes no sense in such a front-loaded primary process,” Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said.
But that is not the case today. While the verbiage of “suspending” one’s campaign remains, the strict legal reason for saying it has become obsolete. Today, running a campaign is a lot more expensive than public funding caps allow for, so candidates have stopped opting for the public funds.
“It’s not really a relevant consideration anymore,” according to Neil Reiff, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer. “The term ‘suspend’ is not a legal term. It doesn’t really mean anything” to candidates that are not publically funded.
In the 2008 presidential primary, three Democratic candidates—Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and John Edwards—accepted public matching funds. In the general that year, Sen John McCain also took matching funds, but then-Sen. Barack Obama did not. In 2012, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision cleared a path for virtually unlimited fundraising via super PACs, no major candidate accepted public matching funds. And this cycle, no major candidates have opted to use public funds.