Skip Navigation

Does Public Financing Lead to Extremism? No, and Here’s Why.

Some commentators blamed Arizona’s public financing law for a spate of extreme bills. But numerous studies show small donors are not more polarizing than others. In fact, the biggest donors have helped fuel partisan brinksmanship.

  • Brent Ferguson
February 28, 2014

Yesterday, Gail Collins wrote an op-ed in The New York Times partially blaming Arizona’s public financing law for a spate of extreme bills like SB 1062 (vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer), which would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people. Collins argued that public funding allows “unwealthy-but-energetic candidates from the social right” to win without financial support of the “pragmatic upper class.” Collins is not the only one who has bought into this unfounded theory — a Washington Post reporter made a similar point.

But there is no basis for the assumption that more democracy was the source of Arizona’s troubles. The clearest rebuttal for those who follow the national political scene is the fact that in recent years, several states that do not use public financing, such as Kansas, Texas, and Indiana, have seen politicians from the far right rise to power in the Republican party. Kansas’s House of Representatives even passed a bill similar to SB 1062 by a vote of 72–49 several weeks ago.     

Just as importantly, the facts demonstrate that Arizona’s clean elections law was not the cause of SB 1062’s passage. Though Collins allows that the public financing law was substantially weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 2011, she claims that elite Republicans had already lost their power (and for some reason have not regained it as the system has lost relevance). However, Collins fails to mention that the three main sponsors of SB 1062 did not participate in the public financing system and that over 90 percent of Republican legislators voted for the bill, despite the fact that only about 20 percent of them participated in the system. Gov. Brewer, who vetoed the bill, and all of the Democrats who voted against it, did participate in the public funding system.

Arizona’s clean elections law allows people to receive large block grants of public money, but there is a different type of public financing law (supported by the Brennan Center) that provides matching funds for candidates who receive small-dollar contributions. Some commentators discussing these laws have made points similar to those made in Collins’s op-ed, questioning whether a move to a small donor public financing, with an increased reliance on small donors, will exacerbate partisanship in the United States. After all, in appealing to donors, candidates frequently use very charged and partisan language. And some of the most ideologically extreme candidates for federal office have raised huge amounts of money from small donors.

In fact, the best recent studies on this issue have suggested that these “celebrity” candidates are outliers, and specifically reject the notion that small donors are more polarizing than other donors. Most recently, political scientist Michael Malbin published a study that rejected the premise “that small donors tend to polarize politics.” He reached this conclusion in part based on the fact that of the 28 incumbents in the 2012 election that raised $250,000 or more in small contributions, about half were considered more moderate than the average member of their party.

Similarly, a recent article by Raymond La Raja and David Wiltse includes an analysis of data from the 2008 elections and explains that “major donors (giving [in] excess of US$200) appear somewhat more ideological than small donors.” The article also concludes that “donors at the mass level may be a moderating force on politics, especially in comparison with super donors or highly ideological activists who try to influence the party in other ways.”

By contrast, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that the biggest donors have been the principal culprit among donors in fueling partisan brinksmanship. Last fall, The Washington Post explained that the Club for Growth, a group that receives very large donations from wealthy supporters, “has become extremely successful at encouraging uncompromising voices on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Ted Cruz.” A 2013 report by the Sunlight Foundation concluded that the most “conservative Republican members of Congress depend more on 1% of the 1% donors than moderate Republicans do, suggesting a polarizing effect of big money, at least on the political right.” 

Perhaps most importantly, we know that small donor matching programs can be very successful by other important measures, including increasing donor diversity and encouraging candidates to spend less time fundraising from lobbyists and big donors, and more time with their constituents. A 2012 Brennan Center report demonstrated how New York City’s system has changed political campaigns by encouraging more local lower and middle income residents to give small contributions.

(Photo: azmedia)