McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act

by Robert Spicer

Millersville University

McCain–Feingold Act

One of the more memorable things to emerge from the 2004 presidential campaign is a simple phrase: “I approve this message.” It has become a sort of meme in its own right; a statement that simultaneously symbolizes the desire to stem the tide of mudslinging that has always been a part of campaigning but also an almost comically absurd symbol of the perceived futility of such attempts. The 2004 presidential campaign was the first in which the candidates were legally required to either begin or end every television with this phrase.

“I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message.”

“I’m John Kerry and I approve this message.”

The “I approve this message” phrase emerged out of The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, also known as McCain-Feingold in the U.S. Senate and Shays-Meehan in the U.S. House. President Bush signed the act into law on March 27, 2002. In an attempt to regulate the role of money in elections, the act made it illegal for political parties to raise and spend soft money donations. Rather than limiting money, McCain-Feingold inadvertently breathed life into a new practice: diverting money into independent our outside groups known as 527s.

These 527 organizations, created under section 527 of the U.S. tax code (hence the name), are tax exempt non-profit groups that can raise money for the purpose of influencing political campaigns. While such organizations existed before 2004, Anthony Corrado of the Brookings Institution argues that the passage of McCain-Feingold “spurred a growth in this kind of involvement” in the campaign.1

Robert Kelner, a lawyer specializing in election law, and Raymond La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst, also argued in a 2014 Washington Post editorial that the 2004 election cycle was the beginning of the increased influence of such outside groups on the campaign process.2 Kelner and La Raja, citing the 527s Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and Americans Coming Together, argue that critics correctly predicted that McCain-Feingold would lead to a declining influence for the two major political parties and an increased role for outside groups, which could conceal the sources of their funding.

While McCain-Feingold was intended to stem the tide of the perceived corrupting influence of money on the political process many argue that it had quite the opposite effect. Michael Toner, a former chairman of the FEC, notes, “All told, 527 groups reportedly raised and spent approximately $409 million on activities designed to influence the 2004 presidential race.” That $409 million, as Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas points out, helped make the 2004 election “the first $1 billion-plus campaign (up from roughly $600 million in 2000).”3 While some might consider that a negative feature of the 2004 race, Thomas points out that “the only good thing that can be said about the cascade of money, much of it from special interests, flowing into the campaign was that it was probably a wash – a zero sum game, a case of massive overkill on both sides.”4

McCain-Feingold became part of the story of the 2004 campaign in a number of other ways. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that the bill merely funneled money away from the parties and into the coffers of special interest groups.5 George Will questioned the constitutionality of the law.6 Glen Justice, writing for the New York Times, reported that the outcome of the law appeared to be increasing the influence of wealthy donors on the outcome of the 2004 race. At one point during the campaign President Bush was criticized for not condemning the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their attack on Senator Kerry’s record of service in the Vietnam War.7 All of these issues represent the unexpected and powerful influences which McCain-Feingold had on the 2004 election, and which similar legislation might have on elections in the future.

1Anthony Corrado, “The Regulatory Environment: Uncertainty in the Wake of Change,” on Financing the 2004 Election, edited by David Magleby, Anthony Corrado, and Kelly Peterson, 30-67 (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2006), p. 54.

2Robert Kelner, and Raymond  La Raja. “McCain-Feingold’s Devastating Legacy.” Washington Post, 11 April 2014,, accessed 16 November 2014.

3Michael Toner, “The Impact of the New Campaign Finance Law on the 2004 Presidential Election.” Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election (New York: Pearson-Longman, 2006).

4Evan Thomas, Election 2004: How Bush/Cheney Won and What You Can Expect in the Future (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 2004), p. xxii.

5Charles Krauthammer, “This is Reform?; McCain-Feingold Accentuates the Negative.” Washington Post, August 13, 2004.

6George Will, “McCain-Feingold a tangled web.” Desert Morning News, February 22, 2004.

7David Espo, “Bush Criticizes Outside Ads on Both Sides; Democrats say President’s Remarks are too Little, too Late.” The Herald-Sun, August 24, 2004.