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New Study Finds That Parties’ Voter Mobilization Efforts Are Not Dependent on Soft Money

With Congress turning again to campaign finance reform, new research findings from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law reveal that a ban on unregulated soft money will help restore political parties to their traditional role.

July 3, 2001

For Immediate Release
July 3, 2001

Contact Information:
Amanda Cooper, 212 998–6736

New Study Finds That Parties’ Voter Mobilization Efforts are Not Dependent on Soft Money
Only 8.3% of Soft Money Spent on Party Building, GOTV, and Voter Education
Parties Could Fund Voter Mobilization with Hard Money; 40% of Soft Money Contributions Are in Amounts Permissible for Hard Money Contributions to Party Committees

With Congress turning again to campaign finance reform, new research findings from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law reveal that a ban on unregulated soft money will help restore political parties to their traditional role. Based on FEC data, in the 2000 campaign just 8.3% of soft money spent by the Republican and Democratic parties went to voter education, phone banks, voter registration, get-out-the-vote drives (“GOTV”) and other traditional party-building activities. As state party coffers have been flooded with soft money since 1996, state party spending on voter mobilization has changed little. Moreover, the Brennan Center study suggest that parties could fund their voter mobilization efforts with hard money, since 40% of soft money contributions are in amounts permissible for hard money contributions to party committees.

The soft money ban is at the heart of the McCain-Feingold bill and companion legislation sponsored in the House by Representatives Marty Meehan and Chris Shays.

“Like so many other scare tactics used by anti-reformers, the recently professed concern that a soft money ban will gut party spending on voter mobilization is belied by the facts.” said Nancy Northup, Director of the Democacy Program at the Brennan Center. “The parties are spending only about eight cents of every soft money dollar on party building activities. Parties can raise the money to fund those activities under the current contribution limits to party committees without taking soft money from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals. Banning soft money is a ‘win-win’ situation for political parties and average Americans.”

The Brennan Center database on “soft money” spending by the parties was developed by Craig Holman, Senior Policy Analyst at the Brennan Center, in consultation with Robert Biersack, Senior Analyst with the Federal Election Commission. The Brennan Center “soft money” database consists of all national and state party soft money spending in relation to federal elections for the 2000 election cycle. The longitudinal analysis referenced here is made possible through the use of comparable research by Ray La Raja at the University of California/Berkeley for the years 1992 through 1998.

The Brennan Center study found that 38% of soft money spent by the parties in 2000 far and away the largest expenditure went to television and radio ads and direct mail. An earlier study of party television advertisements by researchers at the Brennan Center and the University of Wisconsin, showed that party-sponsored television ads funded with soft money virtually always mentioned candidates (99.8% of ads) and rarely mentioned the party (8% of ads). Although these ads were funding with soft money from corporations and unions who are barred from influencing federal elections, these party-sponsored ads were, in fact, aimed at electing or defeating candidates. And in the last two months of election season, a majority of television ads (54%) purchased with party soft money attacked an opposing candidate.

Party building activities ranked fifth in party soft money spending in 2000:

38.0% Electioneering “Issue” advocacy

18.1% Administration

15.4% Fundraising

14.3% Salaries


3.5% Consultants

2.4% Mail

The Brennan Center study also found that the recent explosion of soft money has coincided with a smaller share of party resources being devoted to party building and a far, far heavier concentration on electioneering “issue” ads. In two presidential election cycles, from 1992 to 2000, soft money spending by the parties increased over 500 percent, from $86.1 million to $487.5 million. Over that same period, state party spending on party building declined from 14% to 10% of soft money expenditures; while state party spending on electioneering “issue” advocacy skyrocketed from 3% to 52%.

“Soft money ushered in the era of political party as TV ad producer,” said Ms. Northup. “Closing the soft money loophole will refocus parties on the activities for which they are uniquely equipped voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, broad message development and agenda setting.”

In a related finding, the Brennan Center study determined that business, with $230 million in soft money donations to the parties in 2000, and wealthy individuals, with $170 million in soft money donations, were largely responsible for feeding the parties’ explosive demand for soft money. By comparison, organized labor gave $30 million in soft money to the parties in 2000.

The Brennan Center soft money data base coded, by type of expenditure, the self-reported itemized expenditures made by party committees. These expenditure types included seven categories: media-issue advocacy (television and radio buys and production, and any direct mail and mail production designated for issue advocacy); general mail (other mail expenditures not designated for issue advocacy); voter mobilization (all GOTV expenditures, telephone banks, phone expenses associated with GOTV, voter registration activities, absentee mail drives, lawn signs and any other expense associated with voter drives); consultants (outside consultants, lawyers and accountants); party salaries (wages, salaries, benefits and other employment-related expenses of party staff); administration (operations and overhead); and fundraising (all expenses directly associated with fundraising).

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law develops and implements a nonpartisan agenda of scholarship, public education, and legal action that promotes equality and human dignity, while safeguarding fundamental freedoms. For more comprehensive research findings, please contact Scott Schell at (212) 998–6318, or Amanda Cooper at (212) 998–6736, or visit

Click here for the full report.

Click here for more documents on Shays-Meehan / McCain-Feingold.