Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig has recently been making a frigid, 150-mile walk through New Hampshire to promote campaign finance reform.
Lessig, the founder of the crowdfunded Mayday PAC -- known as the super-PAC to end all super-PACs -- kicked off the 10-day march in the tiny Northern New Hampshire town of Dixville Notch, known for its midnight ballot box voting during the "first in the nation" primary. His walk will take him and dozens others to the state capitol in Concord by Jan. 21.
In a visit to the Concord Monitor before starting the walk, Lessig offered a striking comparison showing how the role of money in politics has changed over the years. To Lessig, fundraising has become a primary focus for today’s politicians, at the expense of governing.
"If you ask how many times did Ronald Reagan attend a fundraiser when he ran for re-election in 1984, the answer is eight times. If you say how many times did Barack Obama attend a fundraiser in 2012, the answer is 228 times," Lessig told the Monitor.
He continued, "And you think, how does a man, as a person, run the nation when he's attending 228 fundraisers? And the answer is not very well. It's pretty terrible for your ability to do your job. It's pretty terrible for your ability to be responsive to the American people, because -- let me tell you -- the American people are not attending 228 fundraisers. Those people are different."
It’s no secret that truckloads of dollars are raised and spent in presidential elections, but PolitiFact New Hampshire wondered whether Lessig’s specific comparison between Reagan and Obama was accurate.
Lessig isn’t the first to make the comparison between Reagan and Obama on fundraising; similar statistics have surfaced in various media reports. These comparisons track back to a distinction in campaign financing that we’ll recap here.
The story begins in 1972, the year of President Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. (Yes, the one that led to the Watergate scandal.) That year, the Nixon re-election campaign collected millions of dollars in illegal campaign contributions. After Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed (and Nixon’s successor as president, Gerald Ford, signed into law) changes to the Federal Election Campaign Act.
Once enacted, presidential candidates were able to receive a partial federal match for money they raised for the primary, up to $5 million. And for the general election, candidates could secure full federal funding -- up to $20 million -- as long as they raised no private money for the general election and stuck to expenditure limits.
That system prevailed for the better part of three decades. However, in recent presidential campaign cycles, the system began to break down due to a combination of court decisions and changes in how presidential campaigns prefer to operate. An arms-race style competition between the parties has left any candidate who accepts the restrictions tied to federal funding at a severe disadvantage, since candidates can easily raise more private money than the federal allotment, without the strings attached.
Obama is one of those politicians. He was the first president since Nixon to be elected with only private money. And to give some perspective on the amount of money we’re talking about, more than $2 billion was raised and spent in the last presidential election between Obama and Mitt Romney.
When we contacted Lessig to see where he was getting his data comparing Obama to Reagan, he pointed to a presentation by Fred Wertheimer, a lawyer and founder of Democracy 21, a group that advocates curbing the influence of big money in American politics.
In his presentation -- made at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School in October, 2012 -- Wertheimer said the system for public financing of presidential elections, which emerged in the wake of the Watergate scandal, is broken.
Reagan used the public financing system for his campaign in 1984 and did not have a primary opponent, eliminating his need to raise money during the primary and general election.
Reagan "ran for re-election without holding a single campaign fundraiser," reported Washington Post national political editor Dan Eggen in a 2012 article, "Post-Watergate campaign finance limits undercut by changes."
"If he attended fundraisers, they must have been for the party or for other GOP candidates," concurred Viveca Novak, the editorial and communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money raised by politicians running for federal offices.
Lessig later pointed to an article in the Baltimore Sun by Brendan Doherty -- a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of the book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.
Doherty counted 220 fundraisers for the Obama Victory Fund, compared to just three fundraisers "headlined" by Ronald Reagan during his third and fourth years in office, leading up to his re-election.
Doherty doesn’t break down the fundraisers year by year, and instead uses a campaign cycle, which usually spans two calendar years. His numbers match those cited by USA Today, which reported on Aug. 12, 2012, that Obama had attended his 200th fundraiser since filing for re-election in the spring of 2011. Obama attended five fundraisers in one day in Chicago, including one at which guests paid $40,000 per ticket, according to the newspaper.
Doherty counted the fundraisers by using the public papers of the presidents of the United States, presidential libraries and Lexis-Nexis searches of Associated Press articles.
"My numbers are a bit different from the trend you cite, but (the) shift from Reagan to Obama in terms of time spent fundraising has been dramatic," Doherty told the Monitor.
With the demise of the public financing system and looser rules on raising and spending money, said Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, "fundraising is unfortunately a bigger part of the process than ever before," Novak said.
Lessig said Reagan attended eight fundraisers in 1984, while Obama attended 228 in the 2012 cycle.
We couldn’t replicate his exact numbers, but they jibe with reports by experts and the logic of how the public- and private-financing systems work. There’s certainly little doubt about Lessig’s larger point -- that there’s been a sea change in spending on presidential elections during the past 30 years. On balance, we rate Lessig’s claim Mostly True.