PolitiFact: Campaign fundraising was different when Carter ran

“When I ran against incumbent President Gerald Ford, you know how much money we raised? None.”

Former President Jimmy Carter during an interview Feb. 21 with CNN’s Piers Morgan


During a recent interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, former President Jimmy Carter made a striking claim about how presidential campaigns had changed since Carter first ran for president in 1976.

Asked by Morgan about the challenges facing President Barack Obama, Carter said the presidency has “changed dramatically.”

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “when I ran against incumbent President Gerald Ford, you know how much money we raised? None.”

Coming off a 2012 election in which Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney together raised in excess of $2 billion, that’s quite a difference. Is it correct?

We checked with campaign-finance experts, who explained how campaign finance was structured in 1976.

That was the first presidential election run under the post-Watergate amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act. Presidential candidates were able to receive a partial federal match for money they raised for the primary, up to $5 million. For the general election, candidates could receive full federal funding, up to $20 million, as long as they raised no private money for the general election and stuck to expenditure limits.

During the primary phase of the campaign, Carter raised $13.8 million, including $3.5 million in federal matching funds. But since Carter wasn’t running against Ford at that point, we don’t think these fundraising efforts undercut Carter’s claim of not raising money against Ford.

What happened in the general election is the more relevant issue for judging Carter’s claim. He and Ford agreed to the expenditure limits, meaning they qualified for the $20 million in federal funds. By accepting the money, both candidates were legally barred from raising money for their official campaign committee.

On the surface, this supports Carter’s claim. “No presidential candidate raised a dime for a general election campaign between Watergate and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign,” said Kenneth A. Gross, who practices political and election law for the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. “Until 2008, every major-party general-election candidate was 100 percent publicly funded.”

But as is so often the case with campaign finance, there were some exceptions that make Carter’s claim an oversimplification. We learned about at least three ways in which Carter (or vice presidential candidate Walter Mondale or other surrogates such as Carter’s wife, Rosalynn) were allowed to raise money for the general election. The key is that this money had to go toward groups other than his own official presidential campaign committee.

  • Fundraising for the Democratic National Committee and other party committees. The DNC, like its Republican equivalent, was allowed under the law to raise and spend $3 million on behalf of the Carter-Mondale ticket for the general election campaign.

News reports in October 1976 suggested tension between the Carter campaign and DNC Chairman Robert Strauss due to the DNC’s inability to deliver all of the permitted $3 million to the presidential ticket.

Still, while not every fundraising effort for the DNC was headlined by Carter, “we did raise money for the DNC up to the limit,” said Peter G. Bourne, who served as Carter’s deputy campaign director in the general election as well as mid-Atlantic director and director of the Washington office during the primaries.

  • Fundraising for an authorized "compliance fund." The law allowed the Carter campaign to collect money for a separate account called a "compliance fund," which supported the campaign's legal efforts to follow campaign finance laws. FEC data show that the compliance fund collected more than $58,000 for the general election.
  • Fundraising for down-ballot candidates. Bourne said the Carter campaign, and sometimes Carter, also raised money for House, Senate and other candidates.

Our ruling

Carter said on CNN that when he ran against Ford in 1976, “you know how much money we raised? None.”

Carter is correct that, like every presidential candidate until Obama in 2008, he did not raise money for his own campaign committee for the general election, opting instead for federal funding that came with some strings. But he exaggerates slightly by suggesting that he and his campaign raised no money during their general-election campaign against Ford. In fact, they did help raise money for the DNC, a compliance fund and for down-ballot candidates. We rate his statement Mostly True.