Several billion dollars will be spent on this year's American elections, from the presidential level on down. The amount in itself is not a bad thing—advertising costs money, whether it's for a soft drink or a candidate. And the information conveyed, while sometimes annoying, actually does inform us and make us more competent voters by the time Election Day comes around. But it's important to keep in mind that the people financing the elections are not the same as the people voting in them, and they have very different priorities.
In a recent column, I talked a bit about Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner's new book Campaign Finance and Political Polarization. This book makes a compelling case that decades of campaign finance reform is actually inducing greater polarization in our political system. But the book also nicely shows, using campaign contribution records and years of detailed surveys, how different types of donors make their contributions.
One of the more important lessons is that donors are much more polarized than other citizens. If you ask registered voters to identify themselves as liberals, moderates, or conservatives, the bulk of them will call themselves moderates. Not so donors, who are far more likely to identify as liberals or conservatives. Donors are a fiercely polarized group, whether they concentrate mainly on presidential, congressional, or state legislative elections. This isn't necessarily surprising; we have decades of evidence showing that people who are interested in politics are much more ideologically inclined than those who aren't, and those who donate to campaigns or parties tend to be pretty interested in politics.
Just limiting the amount some groups can give can have important effects; when parties are limited in their spending, that can contribute to polarization.
Donors are additionally unrepresentative of the American electorate in terms of their demographic profile. Donors are atypically wealthy, white, old, and male compared to the non-donor population. Median household wealth among American adults is somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000, note La Raja and Schaffner. Median wealth among donors ranges between $300,000 and $1,000,000.
How much does this distort our political system? That's actually difficult to say. There's very little evidence that politicians just do whatever their donors want them to do. After all, the typical politician gets money from many different groups and individuals with different objectives, and it's hard to please them all. But evidence from Larry Bartels and Marty Gilens suggests that politicians are much more representative of their wealthier constituents. This might well be going on even if donations weren't so skewed, however.
Yet not all donors are alike. As La Raja and Schaffner note, different groups of donors contribute very differently. Formal party groups, such as the Democratic National Committee or the Iowa Republican Party, are actually surprisingly moderate in their donation patterns. That is, they give primarily to more centrist candidates and are thus a force for moderation in the political system. This is for a good reason; these organizations are chiefly oriented around winning elections, and they devote their resources to a handful of competitive races, which tend to be peopled by more moderate candidates.
Issue groups are different. These organizations, such as the National Rifle Association or NARAL Pro Choice America, are much more ideologically motivated and largely contribute to more extreme candidates. Business groups are somewhat more pragmatic but still tend to donate to more conservative candidates. Labor unions tend to contribute only to liberal candidates. Individuals donate pretty evenly across the ideological spectrum, although some research suggests that small donors are actually more polarized than big donors.
All of this is important to keep in mind as we consider different ideas for reform. Just limiting the amount some groups can give can have important effects; when parties are limited in their spending, that can contribute to polarization. Other ideas, such as a matching fund system for small donations, can similarly exacerbate polarization if small donors are actually polarized. A few states have experimented with complete public financing of elections, which solves some problems, though not necessarily polarization.
But we should also remember that the funding of elections is not inherently corrupt or evil. We actually need the information that campaign advertisements provide, and we need it advertised aggressively and continuously so that it reaches the bulk of voters. For the most part, this money is provided by the wealthiest among us on a voluntary basis, and it's not obvious they're getting a ton in return.