Campaign finance reformers knifed in the back by academic studies

Campaign finance reformers have had a tough go of it lately. A near decade-long losing streak at the Supreme Court has been compounded by the demise of public financing for presidential campaigns. Most view proposed fixes, like Harry Reid’s constitutional amendment, as cynical ploys to motivate low-information voters with Pavlovian missives about evil industrialists. Even supposed supporters pay only lip service while calling for “big, fat checks.”

Their unwitting abandonment by academia, however, may be the harshest blow. Despite a shared zeal for speech-stifling regulation, academics are providing reformers little intellectual ammunition. In fact, their findings seem only to further erode the once impenetrable wall of reformer rhetoric.


Reformers’ central premise is private campaign funding—to the exclusion of almost everything else—corrupts the otherwise altruistic public servants roaming Congressional halls. Campaign contributors, they warn, “buy” political favoritism, which distorts legislative outcomes and harms the common good.


Recent scholarship, however, has found otherwise. An exhaustive study from Ohio State found, “There is not one clear and obvious causal mechanism between the campaign funding inputs and legislative outputs – the mechanisms are varied and they change over time in response to regulatory developments, technological innovation, and the shifting interests of the electorate.” In other words, campaign funds don’t easily translate into legislative measurables.


Campaign money, the study further explains, exists as “only one part of a complex ecosystem of power, influence, and personal relationships that connect electoral and legislative politics.” This reality however doesn't exactly make for sexy reformer fundraising appeals. ‘Contribute to our cause and we’ll alter the balance in the complex ecosystem . . .’


Beyond measurable legislative favoritism, reformers argue contributors corrupt because lawmakers provide them “access” and other influences “neither easily detected nor practical to criminalize.” The Ohio State study suggests this too is overplayed:


Does money buy access or influence? Based on our interviews, it is uncertain whether independent spending yields greater access to Members of Congress for the groups that spend directly in support, beyond the level of access and influence the groups already have with Member.” (emphasis added).


A recent Princeton study also seems to refute the notion big funders get their priorities placed at the front of the legislative line. “It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites . . . Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens . . . want the same things from government.”


The authors don’t exactly applaud this result, calling average citizens “coincidental beneficiaries.” But the fact remains policy agreement between people funding elections and those that do not is fairly consistent on wide variety of issues.  

Absent policy or legislative distortions all that remains are the elections themselves. The supposed evil here is massive spending distorts our elections by “drowning out” lesser-funded messengers. This in turn skews electoral outcomes. A Demos study analyzing the 2012 elections did not observe the correlation. In close Senate races the overall better-funded candidate lost 81% of the time, in the House they lost 52%.


In fact, the study—designed specifically to bemoan of the evils of private funding—could only muster a tepid response to their findings:Money does not guarantee victory, but all else equal, it improves a candidate’s prospects . . . And, although there are diminishing returns, more is likely better.” In other news, the sky is blue.


An empirical study from the University of Missouri quantified the diminishing returns.  Throwing gobs of money into a race has a modest effect; a $1 million-dollar bump adds between 0.1%-1% to a candidates share, making a difference in only the very tightest races.  


While reformers take a hit from the latest academic studies, one disturbing conclusion should give pause. According to the OSU study, “While it is difficult to gauge the effect of the Democrat’s reliance on contributions from the wealthy, it does likely preclude a strong focus on redistributive policies.”


Thus absent private funding, Democrat tendencies toward socialism would be even more pronounced. No further argument for the status quo should be required.


By Paul Jossey