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August 03, 2012 10:08 AM The Next Four Years of Presidential Fundraising

By Brendan Doherty

With so much focus on President Obama’s record-breaking first-term fundraising efforts, what are the next four years of presidential fundraising likely to bring?

If Mitt Romney were to win the White House and our campaign finance rules remained the same, he would likely follow in the footsteps of the past four presidents, with substantial dedication to fundraising for fellow party members in his first two years in office that would then give way to a focus on his reelection campaign and the national committee in the third and fourth years of a potential Romney administration.

The same combination of the rising costs of campaigns and contribution limits that are low relative to the costs of campaigns that has pressured recent presidents to break their predecessors’ fundraising records would likely lead Romney to devote even more time than Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama each did in their first term to raising money in increments in the low thousands to finance ever higher campaign costs first for his party’s congressional and gubernatorial candidates in 2014 and for his own potential reelection bid in 2016.

If Barack Obama were to win a second term in the Oval Office, we are not likely to see a dramatic slowdown in presidential fundraising, even though he would be ineligible for reelection four years later.  Each of the three two-term presidents I studied in my book, The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign, was a dedicated party-builder in his second term. Here are the numbers:

Two of these three two-term presidents actually headlined more fundraisers in their second term than in their first.  Ronald Reagan’s 100 second-term fundraisers topped the 80 he attended in his first term.  Bill Clinton’s 471 second-term fundraisers were almost triple his first-term total of 167.  And George W. Bush’s substantial second-term total (155) would have likely have eclipsed his 173 first-term fundraisers had he not cancelled a series of fundraisers in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis.

Clinton’s unprecedented second-term fundraising efforts merit more discussion and can be attributed to several factors: his efforts to help retire the substantial debt of the Democratic National Committee left over from the 1996 election season; a drive to win back control of the House and Senate from the Republicans following their historic takeover of both chambers in 1994; his goal of electing Vice President Al Gore to succeed him in the Oval Office; and the unprecedented run by First Lady Hillary Clinton for a U.S. Senate seat in New York.

While we are unlikely to see a second-term increase as dramatic as Clinton’s in a potential second Obama term, the same institutional rules of the campaign finance system and contextual factors that have led even second-term presidents to devote so much time to fundraising would likely yield another term marked by aggressive presidential fundraising.  Because competitive presidential elections and narrow margins of party control of Congress have raised the stakes of all federal and many state elections, even a second-term president spends a substantial amount of time helping fellow party members to finance ever more expensive campaigns with money raised in the relatively small increments required by campaign finance legislation.

Note: For all the focus on President Obama’s fundraising efforts for his own reelection, it’s worth noting that about 80% of presidential fundraisers over the past 36 years have been not for the president or for the national party, but were held instead for the benefit of other party members.  For a detailed analysis of who benefits from these extensive presidential party-building efforts, please see chapter 3 of The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Brendan Doherty is a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy.