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Campaign Finance and Partisan Polarization

- June 20, 2008

Many thanks to the founders of Monkey Cage for inviting me to join them.

Obama’s decision to opt out of public funding for the general election is today’s big story. According to the Washington Post:

Given his groundbreaking success in raising money in the Democratic primaries, estimates of how much he could collect for the general-election run to $300 million or more, a sum that would allow the senator from Illinois to compete even in traditionally Republican states.

This got me wondering whether some of the current geographic polarization in American politics (the Red-Blue divide) might be due to the current campaign finance regime. Since the 1970s (when geographic polarization began to tick up), presidential campaigns have been able to opt in to public financing, but this has put strict limits on how much they could spend. As a result, presidential campaigns have become ruthlessly efficient in targeting resources into a handful of swing states, rather than running more costly national campaigns or even risking a few resources on medium to long shot states. Less competitive states, on the other hand, see no campaign activity and perhaps drift into a maximally partisan result.