WASHINGTON – Fund-raising front-runners President Bush, Howard Dean (search) and John Kerry are giving the rest of the presidential candidates a short-term boost in the wallet by skipping taxpayer financing next year.
Because the three are turning away the assistance from taxpayers who check a box on their returns, the eight candidates still participating in the program are expected to get substantially more federal money at the start of the primary season.
The Federal Election Commission (search) initially estimated candidates would only get 40 cents to 50 cents of every dollar they were entitled to when the first checks are sent in January.
But Bush, Dean and Kerry are saving the program millions with their decision, meaning the rest of the candidates could get roughly 75 cents to 80 cents on the dollar, based on an Associated Press analysis of FEC and campaign estimates.
"By opting out of the system, Dean and Kerry and Bush before them have actually helped the candidates who stay in the system by reducing the shortfall," said Larry Noble, a former FEC attorney who heads the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Under a program set up after Watergate to reduce the influence of big money in presidential elections, the government matches up to $250 of every private donation qualified candidates collect for their primary campaigns. The maximum assistance any candidate can receive is $18.7 million.
About one in 11 taxpayers checks the box sending $3 in federal money -- it does not cost taxpayers anything from their refunds -- to the presidential matching fund. The program frequently runs short on cash.
Candidates typically make up the "matching fund (search)" shortfalls with loans while waiting for the fund to be replenished. That costs the campaign extra in interest payments.
In the 2000 primaries, candidates received about 50 cents of every dollar they were entitled to in January, compared to about 60 cents on the dollar in 1996.
Dean's departure alone had a major impact. The former Vermont governor, who has done particularly well drawing small-dollar donors, would have been entitled to at least $15 million from the program had he stayed in, the FEC estimates.
Wesley Clark (search) is expected to get one of the biggest initial payments -- roughly $5.5 million if matchable donations continue coming in at the pace they have been. The Clark campaign estimates he will have raised about $15.5 million by year's end, roughly 44 percent of it matchable.
According to rough estimates from other campaigns, Dick Gephardt (search) will get about $5 million from the fund in January; Joe Lieberman (search), around $4 million; Dennis Kucinich (search) roughly $3.3 million; and Lyndon LaRouche (search), up to $850,000.
John Edwards' (search) campaign declined to provide an estimate. The FEC projects that based on his fund raising through September, the period covered by the latest campaign finance reports, the North Carolina senator will be eligible for at least $3.2 million. If Edwards accumulates matchable donations at the same pace this quarter as he has previously, he would get a first payment in the $4 million range.
Together, it appears the candidates will initially be eligible for roughly $23 million in matching funds. The FEC estimates the fund will have about $18.2 million to give out in January; a February shortfall is also expected, as the program waits for tax returns to replenish the fund.
Noble said that while bigger initial payouts are a plus, Democrats taking the public money would probably prefer taking out larger loans to facing primary rivals operating outside the system.
That's because Dean, Kerry and Bush aren't bound by the system's state-by-state spending caps or its overall $45 million spending limit.
Campaign watchdog groups have urged them to abide by the program's limits anyway; only Kerry plans to do so, and only by the overall limit.