WASHINGTON — CAMPAIGN reform could be dealt a severe blow in 1992 - right in the wallet. Officials at the Federal Election Commission (FEC) predict that a special fund that pays for presidential campaigns could run as much as $15 million short next year. That would crimp candidates' spending, especially in early caucus and primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
The shortfall could be especially damaging to little-known candidates, who rely heavily on federal matching funds to pay for their campaigns early in the race.
But FEC officials say the news is even worse for 1996. By that time, the federal fund could run $150 million shy, which could undercut financing for not only the primary races, but also national conventions and the general election.
Federal funds to pay for presidential campaigns come from the Treasury through the $1 checkoff on income tax returns. However, American taxpayers, disenchanted with politics, are checking off the $1 contribution less often just as the cost of campaigns is escalating.
In 1988, the fund provided $177.8 million for the presidential primaries, the two major party conventions, and the fall campaigns of George Bush and Michael Dukakis. The fund was set up after the Watergate scandal in hopes of cleaning up White House elections.
The FEC, alarmed at declining contributions, recently paid for a study by Market Decisions Corporation of Portland, Ore., to find out the reasons for public apathy. Taxpayer participation has slumped from a peak of 28.7 percent in 1980 to 20.1 percent in 1988.
Bob Biersack, a statistician at the FEC, says the study found two major causes of declining public interest.
First, taxpayers are demanding more accountability. ``People treat the $1 checkoff the same way they treat charitable contributions,'' Mr. Biersack says. ``They want to know how it is spent.''
Second, taxpayers have become cynical about politics. ``They feel these candidates have enough money already ... and that politics is a dirty business,'' Biersack says. FEC hopes to overcome some of these problems with a public education campaign to show people where the money goes.
But Biersack says there are also structural problems that Congress must address. With the checkoff fixed at $1 per taxpayer, the fund would run out of money within 40 years even if everyone contributed. That's because the amounts allotted to candidates are indexed to inflation, and are rising rapidly, while the value of the dollar shrinks.
The study of taxpayer attitudes toward the checkoff was conducted with six focus groups in three cities - Portland, Ore.; Fort Lee, N.J.; and Chattanooga, Tenn. It found that taxpayer knowledge of the presidential election fund was ``sketchy, vague, and incomplete,'' even among those who favored the checkoff system.
Proponents said they like the system because it ``gives `poorer' candidates a chance, evens things out between the rich and the less rich, and diminishes the influence of big money `buying' a candidate.''
But most people don't take part, and they were emphatic about the reasons:
``Campaigns are dirty - have a lot of negativity,'' said one participant.
Another commented: ``Is that money going to conventions? Well, I don't want any money going to a drunken brawl, a week-long party. It's gotten away from its original intent. The conventions don't pick candidates. That's done in the back rooms, probably before the convention is even held.'' Another said: ``I'd give it a definite thumbs down. Incumbents still outspend others - use money for their personal use.''
The study found that high-income taxpayers contribute to the $1 checkoff more often than low-income taxpayers. Also, men give more than women. But there appears to be no difference based on age, or whether the taxpayer votes or not.
Under current law, if the fund runs low, the Treasury is required to cut back first on money given for presidential primaries, while fully funding the conventions and the general elections as long as possible.