WASHINGTON — FEW VOTERS seem to be shedding tears over the fact that no Democrat has yet started running for the party's 1992 presidential nomination. Polls indicate they think campaigns are too long anyway. So they will probably be delighted to learn that the absence of any presidential candidate in either major party so far may well wind up saving them money to boot.
The reason is simply that the longer any White House hopeful waits to launch his candidacy, the less time he will have to raise money that is matchable, dollar for dollar, by Uncle Sam under the federal campaign finance laws, and the less the government will probably have to match.
The law stipulates that a candidate who raises $5,000 in each of 20 states in amounts of $250 or less, in the calendar year preceding the presidential election year, is eligible for the federal match. In past election cycles, candidates have begun putting the squeeze on contributors as soon as the pre-election year has started. By this time four years ago, Democrat Bruce Babbitt had already notified the FEC he was raising money for the 1988 match,and Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole and Democrat Dick Gephardt were on the verge.
Potential candidates, by holding off fund raising this year, may be inadvertently helping the Federal Election Commission, which dispenses the subsidy, to survive a severe money crunch for the 1992 election. The subsidy is financed by the $1 federal income-tax checkoff, and the money pool is drying up because fewer and fewer voters elect to have that buck assigned to the next presidential campaign's expenses. The FEC, with only $115.4 million in the till for 1992, projects that shrinking checkoff participation will raise that figure to only $127.6 million by the start of the 1992 election year -- a shortfall of more than $30 million in what it expects demands on the subsidy fund will be, assuming a fair crop of Democratic challengers.
The Democrats' slow start, though relieving the FEC crunch, can inflict a double whammy on candidates seeking their party's nomination, because of the priorities on dispensing of funds observed by the Treasury. The first bites out of the subsidy pool must go to the parties for their conventions and then to the presidential nominees for their fall campaigns (a projected $133.4 million for both categories for 1992). Only then do candidates get matching money for their primary campaigns -- out of what's left.
With President Bush expected to run unopposed on the Republican side but still eligible for matching funds and having an extensive fund-raising apparatus in place as the incumbent, the pool will be further shrunk for the Democratic candidates as the primary season begins. And their greatest need for campaign money will be in the early months of 1992. Then, presidential primaries are packed into several weeks and candidates must demonstrate voter and financial strength or be forced out.
The FEC is proposing that the Treasury in 1992 not restrict itself to paying out the subsidy from funds already collected by the year's start, but to do so on projected revenues for the later months of April through June, when tax collections are at their peak. Otherwise competing Democrats may either have to put all their resources into the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, first on the calendar, or skimp and save for the later tests and risk elimination before they ever reach them.
Anything that shortens the presidential race, such as candidates delaying the fund-raising they need to run, might be considered an unvarnished blessing if the impact proved to be nonpartisan. But in 1992, unless the president faces a surprise Republican challenger, a shortage of money in the federal pool will make it harder for Democratic aspirants to compete in the primaries, while Bush has a free ride to his renomination.
One FEC proposal is for Treasury to provide qualifying primary candidates only 95 cents for every dollar raised. Others propose that the one-dollar checkoff be doubled -- not likely in this period of disenchanted voters. Democratic Rep. Al Swift of Washington, chairman of a House elections subcommittee, has suggested a "negative checkoff" -- if you don't say no, the dollar goes into the subsidy fund.
Right now, though, a bigger problem for the Democrats than getting federal money for their candidates is getting candidates. And as long as the war goes on, all pretenders to the Oval Office are keeping their heads down.