Private donations to political candidates neither alter the candidates’ voting patterns once they’re in office nor make them more ideologically intractable, found a study co-authored by a University of Colorado Boulder political science professor.
Yet that underlying belief has led to a range of political reforms including the controversial approach of using taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns. These were the central findings of the study, recently published in Legislative Studies Quarterly.
Authors Jeff Harden, an assistant professor of political science at CU-Boulder, and Justin Kirkland of the University of Houston, compared states that allow public financing of political campaigns to those that do not. They sought to understand whether infusions of private donations into the political arena influence the growing ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats in the United States.
Some pundits and politicians, including President Barack Obama, have posited that private campaign donors have some influence on the degree of party polarization, and that a wealthy donor can skew a candidate’s politics.
Harden and Kirkland zeroed in on the New Jersey legislature as an interesting test case. In 2005 and 2007 the state’s legislature rolled out the New Jersey Fair and Clean Elections Pilot Project allowing a select group of legislators to take only public financing for the next election campaign.
For the study, the researchers used an algorithm that predicted each of the New Jersey legislator’s voting records had they not been publicly funded. The researchers then compared the predictions with the legislators’ actual voting behaviors over several years after receiving public financing. The researchers applied a similar test to sets of data from Arizona and Maine before and after public financing was put into place in those states. The results were similar in all three states.
“Our finding is that there was really no effect from the public funding,” Harden said, noting that the researchers evaluated the merits of several hypotheses.
The first of the hypotheses was that once a politician accepts public financing, he or she shifts toward the middle of the ideological spectrum. The second was that the politician became more extreme in his or her ideological views when given private donations. The third was that the donor made his or her gift simply as a form of political expression and did not expect to actually alter the legislator’s voting behavior.
“What we found is that large scale public financing programs yield similar results,” Harden said. “There is not much change in ideological extremity or polarization. I kind of expected to see legislators moderate after taking public financing.”
As a result, the researchers say shifting to a system of public financing as a way to tamp down on ideological rifts may not be a sound strategy.
“If the goal of the state is to reduce polarization, public financing is probably not the answer,” Harden said. “It does not mean it’s not worthwhile. All of these states adopted it at some point because of things like corruption or perception that candidates are owned by corporations.”
And public financing may have other benefits.
“We’ve come to the conclusion it doesn’t have much of an effect on polarization but that doesn’t mean it has no effect on anything else,” Harden said. “What sorts of topics or bills or policies do legislators pursue before or after campaign financing? If you are publicly financed, maybe the portfolio of issues starts to look different.”