Government Dysfunction Media Round Up: July 7

Latest news and research about government gridlock and partisanship.

July 7, 2015

Making Voters Care About Money In Politics

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that large majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents believe that money has too much influence on politics, and 85 percent believe that the current system of campaign finance needs fundamental reform or should be rebuilt entirely. Yet, less than one percent name money in politics their top issue. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post turned to Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), long a champion of campaign finance reform, about how to make the problem resonate with voters. Sarbanes said the first step for a politician is to acknowledge the perception of the electorate. “If I stand in front of an audience of randomly selected Americans, I know that 95 percent of them sitting out there think that Washington is bought and sold by big interests and that their voice is inconsequential. So I can go right to talking about the minimum wage, job creation, and infrastructure, knowing that they’re saying, ‘You can’t get any of it done, because the system is rigged,’” Sarbanes told Sargent. “Or I can start by tapping on the microphone, and saying: ‘I know that 95 percent of people in this room think government is bought and sold by big money special interests. And you’re right.’ All of a sudden they wake up and say, ‘maybe this guy actually knows how we feel and has something to say to me’.”

Stereotypes Reinforce Polarization

Writing in The Hill, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman notes that one of the causes of polarization is the misperception members of one party have about the other. Citing work by Berkeley political scientist Douglas Ahler and Georgetown researcher Gaurav Sood, Mellman says that while six percent of Democrats are atheists or agnostics, Republicans believe almost 30 percent of Democrats fall into that category. Union members comprise about 11 percent of Democrats, but Republicans think they are nearly 40 percent. Democrats have similarly warped views of Republicans, believing that 38 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000 per year, when the actual figure is about two percent. Democrats estimate that 40 percent of Republicans are older than 65, when the reality is this cohort makes up about 20 percent of Republicans. “Partisan hostility is alive and well among average voters,” Mellman writes. “With partisan antipathy and stereotypes so deeply ingrained in the electorate, it’s hard to imagine partisanship abating any time soon, whether on the floor of Congress or in constituents’ living rooms.”  

Top-Two Primary System Has Subtle Effects

In an attempt to reduce polarization among other things, California moved to a top-two primary system five years ago. Under the plan, the top two finishers in a primary regardless of party face each other in the general election. Seth Masket of Pacific Standard reviewed some of the research and finds “a pretty mixed bag…no results have been particularly strong.” There has been no diminishment in the overall polarization of the legislature, according to some preliminary research. However, the effects of the top-two system may be more subtle. One research paper found that candidates from top-two systems were more likely to respond to e-mail from voters outside their party, even in the general runoff election. “This is a potentially very encouraging finding for reformers,” Masket writes. “Even if the top-two system doesn't lead immediately to depolarization, it may make politicians more willing to engage voters outside of their party and listen to a wider range of ideas.”

Linking Income Inequality and Polarization

Northwestern University Prof. Timothy Fedderson and co-author Faruk Gul attempt to draw a link between income inequality and political polarization. They cite two factors: the importance of money in politics and the way the wealthy and everyone else increasingly want different things from the political system. Polarization may stem from the fact that political parties must win support from both voters and donors. “The truth is that voters aren’t the only players in the game,” Feddersen said. “In our model, we make the assumption that in order to win elections, candidates need support from donors as well as support from voters.” Given that wealthy donors tend to support policies that do not reflect the interests of most voters—favoring instead policies that benefit themselves and others like them—campaign contributions have a polarizing effect on political outcomes. “The focal point is no longer the median voter,” Fedderson added. “The focal point is now somewhere in between the median donor and the median voter.”