Campaign Contributions – Free Speech or a Ticket to Ride?

According to information provided by the US Federal Election Commission (FEC), more than $1 billion was raised and spent during the US presidential primary season that concluded in late July. The general election pitting former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against businessman, billionaire, and reality TV host Donald Trump is expected to see expenditures topping $2 billion, with many contributions coming from “independent” donor groups that do not have the same reporting requirements as individual or corporate contributors.

Having recently returned from the Middle East where the US presidential election was always one of the top two topics of interest, it was challenging to explain how so much money could be raised from sources across the political spectrum without impacting the lawmaker’s mission to serve the public interest, however defined, as opposed to the special interests represented by the funding sources. Of course, their only homegrown frames of reference in the region are riddled with corruption and abuse. Suffice it to say that the conversations were difficult and inconclusive as to options for greater transparency.

It is increasingly difficult to characterize democracy as a “value” when its implementation is clouded by so many special interests driven by the perception of “pay to play” that dogs current controversies about the Clinton Foundation or the ethics of Trump’s business dealings.

The role of campaign contributions is controversial for many reasons, but as my colleague Jordan Paul, the maven of Congressional politics likes to point out, the tempest is largely uninformed about the scope of impact. If one looks at the statistics on re-elections of incumbents in Congress in 2012, 90% of House members and 91% of Senate members who chose to run were re-elected. His point is that given these results, the gerrymandered House districts that protect incumbents from both parties, and the blessings that accrue from serving on various committees, the real contests are around 10% of seats up for grabs.

What makes this election a bit less predictable is that an outlier like Donald Trump, who has no party loyalty to impede him, may be a driving force is negatively changing the odds of re-election of incumbents in certain states. He has already forced key Republican donors, like the Koch Brothers, to focus primarily on ensuring Republican control of the Senate rather than support a presidential candidate with whom they have fundamental disagreements. How much this will trickle down to House races is a big unknown and traditional Republican Party money seems to be flowing into key races to support their candidates.

Another key unknown is how outside funding will skew candidates’ positions, left or right, in response to contributions. Data shows that Texas, California, and New York are the largest sources of contributions reported to the FEC, and surely, these states are already defined as red or blue in most polls. So the money must be going somewhere to support candidates who share the donors’ positions.

wash postSo what’s the fuss about outside campaign financing? Here is an interesting fact, which may or may not surprise: According to an article in the Washington Post, “The average member of the House received just 11 percent of all campaign funds from donors inside the district.” This reinforces the perception of ‘unseen hands’ of special interests guiding elected members, as well as the high costs of election campaigns. But if 90% of the House elections favor the incumbents, why do members need so much extra funding?

The article points out that “Between 2006 and 2012, about 100 House members per election cycle raised a third or more of their total campaign funds from people who live outside their districts. The more money a House member gets from people outside the district, the less reflective the member’s ideology is of his or her constituents’ ideology. House members are following the money, not their voters.” This statement is based on an extensive analysis of positions of both in- and outside district donors. Overall, the in-district donors’ ideology, as opposed to local voters’ interests, “is closer to outside donors’ ideology than to the average ideology of voters in each party.”

The bottom line, according to the article is that “The more money a member of Congress gets from donors outside the district, the less that member represents his or her constituents’ preferences. And all that outside funding may be leading to a more polarized Congress, as it appears to encourage members to pay attention to donors whose ideologies are more extreme than voters’.”

So the next time someone argues about campaign finance reform, remember that, regardless of political persuasion, donors seem to have more influence on candidates than do voters, and this is a model that does not need to be encouraged in emerging democracies.

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