*by Bob Biersack
With less than three weeks left until the Republicans open their convention on July 18, both parties may be thinking more fondly about the good old days of public financing. Each party would have received about $20 million for their nominating powwows this year if the public funding program had continued. Instead, Congress dispensed with it and passed a provision in 2014 allowing each party to receive up to $100,200 per year from individuals and $45,000 per year from PACs with the money dedicated to the conventions.
But both parties seem to be finding the convention funds something of a hard sell for even their loyal donors, judging by the reports filed so far. The Democratic National Committee has brought in a little under $5 million so far for its convention account. Just over $1 million of that was raised in May alone, implying a stepped-up effort; nearly half of the month's total came from five Native American tribes that operate casinos.
The Republican National Committee has been more successful, with its convention account hauling in a total of $15.7 million through May - though still about $4 million less than the public grant would have been. About $2.3 million of that came in during May, with nearly half of it parceled out from the new joint fundraising effort between the RNC and presumptive nominee Donald Trump's campaign. The older and much larger Hillary Clinton joint fundraising efforts haven't yet included the Dems' convention account as a partner.
The higher contribution limits for these accounts (three times the "normal" limit to a national party) have played a critical role. Nearly 30 percent of the DNC convention funds and 48 percent of the funds in the RNC account have come in slugs of $100,200 -- the maximum permitted donation.
Each convention city (Cleveland for the Republicans and Philadelphia for the Democrats) also has a "host committee" that can raise unlimited funds from individuals, companies and others to pay for a variety of logistical expenses. But this year, reports indicate, those accounts are hurting, especially on the GOP side as some corporations and other potential donors have sought to keep their distance from the Trump campaign. But disclosure of donors' names and the amounts they gave isn't required until 60 days after each convention is over.
The DNC also badly trails its Republican counterpart in fundraising for the other two special party accounts to which donors can give more than $100,000 per year, which were created by Congress at the same time as the convention account. Totals thus far for the "building" funds intended to support physical infrastructure for the parties were only $775,000 for the DNC compared with $13.3 million for the RNC. A third account devoted to legal expenses related to election recounts brought $1.6 million to the DNC through May while the GOP raised $5 million.
These differences between the parties are clearly shown in the following chart.
While presidential campaign fundraising has so far been dominated by the Clinton campaign, Republicans rule when it comes to large new donations to the national parties -- a little ironic considering that the language creating the accounts, attached as a rider to a budget bill, was drafted by a lawyer for Democratic candidates and party committees.
The different contribution limits for these accounts also are beginning to impact the parties' reliance on the largest donations. The chart below shows, for both the Democratic and Republican national committees, the percentage of total receipts made up of contributions of at least $30,000 for the full 2012 and 2014 election cycles, and through May of 2016. Already we can see that both parties are getting more of their funding in these large denominations, with several months of intense fundraising still to come. The current cycle is the first in which these three additional accounts, with their much higher limits, have been available.
The accounts were created to give the parties increased financial flexibility in three areas theoretically unrelated to actual campaigning. The basic costs of conducting the national convention, maintaining a physical headquarters, and litigating possible election challenges arguably are beyond the normal electoral activities parties traditionally undertake.
History has taught us, though, that where resources are available or accessible, creative maneuvers to affect election outcomes are never far behind.