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This Week in Political Science: Money Edition

- November 11, 2011

A central demand of the Occupy Wall Street protests — and among Americans generally — is to ‘take the money out of politics‘. This week Josh Tucker interviewed political scientists Adam Bonica and Andrew Therriault about campaign donations and the effect of campaign spending on electoral outcomes. Here is some other political science research about money in politics.

THE MEDIA, MISPERCEPTIONS, AND MONEY. In a 2005 article (gated), political scientists Stephen Ansolabahere, James Snyder, and Erik Snowberg found that the news media vastly overstates campaign expenditures, contributions, or receipts by focusing on competitive races where there is a larger amount of money being spent. In turn, public perceptions about the amount of money in politics are distorted to a similar degree.  The news media also exaggerates the percentage of funding that comes from PACs as opposed to individuals.

More educated respondents were more likely to overstate the amount of money in politics because they pay more attention to the news. Ansolabehere and colleagues find it particularly disconcerting that the media’s exaggerations can sway even the most informed citizens. The authors state:

In short, public perceptions of campaign finance are remarkably consistent with the picture that emerges from newspaper coverage of the topic. The segment of the electorate most likely to read the newspaper shows the greatest biases in their perceptions. The picture in people’s minds is of multimillion dollar elections in which individual donors are of secondary importance. That view is especially pronounced among the college-educated.

LOBBYING. Most lobbying does not change public policy. That is the crux of Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why (project website here), a book by political scientists Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David Kimball, and Beth Leech. They argue that there is much more inertia in public policy than is often thought, making it difficult to shift policies. This is even more true when two sides are putting substantial resources on both sides of an issue.  Ultimately, resources explain less than five percent of the difference between successful and unsuccessful efforts.  Money can matter, but more important are the constraints that governing institutions place on policy change.

BUYING LEGISLATIVE CAPACITY. In a 2007 paper (ungated), political scientist Kevin Esterling describes a very different way of thinking about money and politics than is portrayed in the news media. Esterling writes:

I demonstrate that groups and their political action committees tend to give contributions to “workhorse” committee members who have higher capacities to engage in analytical discourse at hearings, and hence a greater demand for analytical information in their legislative work.

For Esterling, lobbyists do not donate to people in order to influence or persuade them, but to reward important and prominent members of committees. Esterling looked at what kinds of activity in committee made for a powerful member besides just seniority or chairmanship and found that PACs donated more money to those politicians. Looking at Medicare hearings from 2000-2003, Esterling finds:<br>

Members with a higher analytical capacity to work on policies receive more contributions from groups and at the same time are more likely to ask analytical questions regarding the conditions, internal mechanics, or the current or likely future effects of policies at Medicare hearings…The aggregate pattern of contributions does give members a strong incentive to increase their analytical capacity in the long run. In addition, assuming greater contributions increase the probability that a member gets reelected, the electoral process may tend to select high capacity legislators across election cycles.

A LITTLE HELP FOR YOUR FRIENDS. A working paper (that is part of a book project) by political scientist Eleanor Neff Powell focuses on giving by members of Congress to the campaigns of fellow members of their party.  Her results suggest that giving money to colleagues promotes career advancement in Congress, specifically promotion to a leadership position of some kind, although this effect seems to have declined in more recent Congresses.  She concludes:<br>

…party leaders are creating incentives to encourage their members’ contribution behavior with the goal of maximizing the party’s electoral success. To achieve that end party leaders have incentivized and encouraged their members to take actions that maximize the party’s success, not just their own personal success. This effort to encourage contributions has met with tremendous success, leading to dramatic increases in the scope and scale of contribution activity by members of Congress. In fact, it has been so successful, that there is now relatively little variation in the contribution activity, which is consistent with the diminishing size of the e ffects over time.