After public financing forsaken, a dash for cash

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney headshots over dollar sign

(CBS News) President Obama and Mitt Romney have plenty to worry about: Running the country, rolling out a running mate, overseeing their campaigns and getting as firm a grasp as possible on the problems of everyday Americans. Despite all those duties, both men have spent the past few months making time - an awful lot of time, in fact - to raise campaign cash.

Since April 24th - the night he declared himself the presumptive Republican presidential nominee - Romney has held at least one fundraiser on 55 days. That's nearly every other day, and doesn't count Romney's three-day Utah retreat with donorsor the fundraisers he's held without informing the press. Last weekend, meanwhile, Mr. Obama held his 200th fundraising event since filing as a candidate for reelection on April 4, 2011. Both candidates are holding fundraisers this weekend, with Romney hitting four different posh locations Friday and Saturday: The Hamptons, Martha's Vineyard, Cape Cod and Nantucket.

Why do the candidates spend so much time of their time raising money? Because they aren't getting it for free. Between 1976 and 2004, every presidential candidate accepted public financing -- money designated by the taxpayers to pay for their campaigns. Public financing was established to clean up presidential politics amid outrage over Richard Nixon's fundraising transgressions; in partially upholding a court challenge to the system in 1976, the Supreme Court said it could allow America to "reduce the deleterious influence of large contributions on our political process, to facilitate communication by candidates with the electorate and to free candidates from the rigors of fund raising." 

For candidates taking public financing, there was one huge catch: They had to accept limits on how much they could spend on the election. Which is why in 2008, Mr. Obama became the first major party presidential candidate since the system was put in place to turn the money down. Mr. Obama gave up $84 million in taxpayer dollars for the general election campaign; he ended up raising a record-breaking $745 million overall. (Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, took the money.)

"We have created a parallel public financing system where the American people decide if they want to support a campaign they can get on the Internet and finance it, and they will have as much access and influence over the course and direction of our campaign that has traditionally been reserved for the wealthy and the powerful," Mr. Obama said at the time.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Romney ever really considered accepting public financing this time around. That's because they knew the amount of money they could raise far exceeded the $91.2 million cap they would have had to accept on their general election spending if they decided to do so. (Consider: In July alone, Romney raised $101 million and the president brought in $75 million.) The only two candidates granted the money this cycle were Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson, minor party candidates given the cash for their primary campaigns. 

"At the federal level, public financing is effectively dead," said Bob Biersack of the Center for Responsive Politics, who believes the caps on spending are far too low to keep pace with the unprecedented sums now flowing into the campaigns. "It's just that nobody told it it isn't breathing anymore." Strong public financing systems do exist on the state and local level.