Why Ronald Reagan Didn’t Have To Hold A Single Reelection Fundraiser

Conservative media outlets have been abuzz this week with a misleading detail from a new book and the Republican National Committee (RNC) has been only too happy to add fuel to the fire.

“Barack Obama has already held more re-election fundraising events than every elected president since Richard Nixon combined,” the (UK) Daily Mail reported Sunday, based on Brendan J. Doherty’s new book The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign. The paper also observed that Ronald Reagan did not have a single fundraising event for his 1984 re-election.

Despite the GOP’s overt support for unlimited campaign fundraising, RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski blasted Obama for fundraising for his re-election:

It’s no surprise that the Campaigner-In-Chief has taken raising money for his re-election to a whole new level. The worst part is the American taxpayer has been footing the bill.

Though many on the right have gleefully repeated that President Obama has had more fundraising events than his five predecessors, they ignore something very important: context. President Obama is stuck spending so much time raising money for his re-election campaign for two major reasons.


First, the nation’s public financing system for presidential candidates, which went into effect in 1976 and was used by Presidents Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush for their re-elections, has fallen apart. The maximum $91.2 million available for the major parties’ nominees is insufficient for the costs of a modern national campaign. Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney will participate in the system this year. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who lost his presidential bid after accepting the funds and associated limits, said that “no Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that’s dead. That is over.” Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), the 2004 loser, strongly discouraged his party’s 2008 nominee from accepting the grants, noting that it was insufficient to “adequately fund the campaigns.”

But this was not always true. The five previous presidents needed to raise money for only their primary campaign, as public financing would kick in for the general. Reagan, meanwhile, was able to avoid raising any money entirely because he faced no primary and thus automatically received the Republican nomination and the the public financing that came with it. (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also escaped re-nomination contests, but opted to use some primary funds to boost their standing for the general.)

Second, President Obama is the first president to run for re-election in the post-Citizens United world. While other Presidents ran against opponents whose fundraising was limited by individual contribution limits, Obama has to keep pace with not just the Romney campaign, but also with outside groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums of money raised from wealthy donors and big corporations, which on balance support Republicans. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Super PAC and Crossroads GPS 501(c)(4) alone may have $200 million or more to spend on television attack ads, and numerous other right-wing organizations are also getting into the act.

Also, unlike most of his predecessors and Mitt Romney, Obama has vowed to not accept PAC money, accept donations from lobbyists, or allow any registered lobbyists to “bundle” contributions for his campaign. That leaves fundraising from generous donors as the only way to afford a modern presidential campaign.