WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's rejection of public funds for his general-election campaign set a precedent that may forever change how such races are financed and signal a decline in support for campaign finance reform efforts, political experts say.
"Those who've been able to get elected without public finances don't have much incentive to reform a system to give an advantage to people who do need public financing," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that analyzes money in politics. "That doesn't mean that's how the Obama administration is going to work, but if in 2012 he still feels like he can raise hundreds of millions of dollars, leveling the playing field may not be a priority."
Political experts worry that the trend of increasingly expensive campaigns and opting out of public financing might discourage qualified candidates who can't raise large sums to run for public office and could lead to an increase in uncomfortable and, at times, unethical alliances between donors and candidates.
"Increasingly, a candidate's viability becomes defined by their ability to raise funds, not their record on the floor," said Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
In the presidential race, Obama enjoyed a tremendous fundraising advantage over Republican rival John McCain, bringing in $364 million for the fall campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. The sum and Obama's fundraising methods, largely through individual campaign donations, is a stark departure from his earlier promise to limit himself to $84.1 million in federal funds.
By contrast, McCain spent more than $100 million in private donations over the summer but was limited to $84.1 million in public money beginning in early September. He sharply criticized Obama, who's the first presidential candidate to reject public financing for a general-election campaign.
"It's clear Obama paid no cost for opting out of the system and gained a lot of benefit, and McCain paid a great cost and received no benefit," Gross said. "Obama may really believe in the public financing system, but the reality is when it came down to 'Do you believe it enough to finance your election?' the answer was no."
From Obama's substantial monetary advantage to congressional races across the nation, the candidate with the most money going into Election Day emerged victorious in nearly every contest.
(Greg Gordon contributed to this article.)
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