Fundraising Wasn’t for the Forefathers

The earliest candidates for president would have a hard time imagining a $1 billion campaign.

By Lindsay Renick Mayer

February 22, 2007 | It’s a scene that George Washington couldn’t possibly have envisioned in 1789: Presidential candidates entering the race with millions of dollars in the bank, Hollywood parties bagging $1.3 million for a single candidate in one night and a campaign season beginning a full two years before the sitting president leaves office.

In fact, the concept of fundraising itself would have been foreign to the early presidents, who were part of a political culture in which they, not their backers, were the gift-givers—whiskey was a popular vote-getter, said Paula Baker, an Ohio State University historian who researches the history of campaign finance.

“It was unseemly to appear like you were running, because wanting an office would seem to be ambitious and seeming to be ambitious would be seen as a disqualification,” Baker said.

With Congress in recess this week in honor of Presidents’ Day, the 2008 presidential candidates currently serving in Congress have used their time off to campaign—with fundraising expectations that the country’s forefathers never had. In the 2004 presidential election, the candidates raised about $880.5 million total, spending $717.9 million of that, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. (This included $179 million in public funds.) President Bush led the way by raising $367.2 million, including $74.6 million in public money.

“When you think about $300 million spent in an election cycle, it just takes your breath away,” said Allan Lichtman of American University, who specializes in American political history. “When [Andrew] Jackson spent $1 million, that was considered astounding.”

“It was a more democratic, open system, where you had to seek popular appeal.”

—Allan Lichtman, American University professor of history

Lichtman said Jackson, who took office in 1829 and was the nation’s seventh president, was the first organized campaigner. He maintained two campaign headquarters and a system for distributing information touting his qualifications for office. Though Jackson didn’t campaign himself (at that time state parties did all the work), he was the first candidate to bring in a substantial amount of money. “It was a more democratic, open system, where you had to seek popular appeal,” Lichtman said.

Until the early 1970s, politicians also rarely sought contributions from individuals because it was expensive to hire more staff to do so, Ohio State’s Baker said. In 1972, Democratic candidate George McGovern picked up small donations by using a previously little-used technique—direct mail. “Before that, it was a matter of mostly not bothering small donors,” Baker said, adding that McGovern also relied on an infusion of big donors in his unsuccessful race against Richard Nixon.

Today, individual donors make up the bulk of the contributing base. In 2004, 74 percent of President Bush’s receipts came from individual donors, with political action committees and federal funding making up the rest. Funding from taxpayers wasn’t even an option until 1974, and may prove to be an unattractive option to candidates in 2008, who will likely need to raise more money beyond the spending limits that come with accepting the public financing.

The Federal Election Commission was established in 1976 in part to increase the impact of small contributions from individuals through the federal funding program, FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said. The FEC was also charged with ensuring the public disclosure of campaign finances. While some disclosure was required before that time, presidential campaigns mostly reported their fundraising sources voluntarily, Baker said, sometimes resulting in the names of big donors appearing as a list in the newspapers.

While the role of money in political campaigns may have morphed since the earliest presidents took office, the major contributing interests haven’t changed all that much. Both labor and business interests were heavily involved in political giving from its early days. In the late 19th century, Republicans developed a fundraising machine tied to business and issues surrounding tariffs, railroad land grants and tax exemptions, American University’s Lichtman said.

Kathleen Frydl, a historian at the University of California-Berkeley, said the first fundraising committee organized by an interest group was the Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee (CIO-PAC), which was formed in 1943 to support Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 presidential bid. More than 60 years later, there are more than 3,880 active federally registered PACs.

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