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Public Support for Campaign Finance Reform: New Evidence to Help Solve a Festering Problem

Utilizing a new dataset and original survey design, Jorgensen, Song and Jones achieve unexpected findings of use to campaign finance reformers. Contrary to much of the existing scholarship, they find that providing voters with more information can increase support for reform, and that framing the problem as a “broken system” that incentivizes elected officials to focus on fundraising instead of serving the majority of constituents — rather than as corruption — is most persuasive.

  • Paul D. Jorgensen
  • Geoboo Song
  • Michael D. Jones
June 14, 2018

Political science lags behind public opinion when it comes to acknowledging the anti-democratic outcomes caused by private money in American politics. An overwhelming majority of the public, regardless of party affiliation, wants to regulate campaign finance to lessen the influence of the rich and to overturn Citizens United. Many political scientists, however, scoff at this view, adopting the “scholarly consensus” that money is superfluous to political outcomes, according to a paper commissioned by the Campaign Finance Institute. Others even go so far as to attribute our polarized politics to the lack of money flowing to party organizations. Some of these claims have been contested directly, but the overall validity of this “consensus” argument suffers from  reliance on truncated data and unsophisticated research designs. More intricate approaches, with more expansive datasets, show how the public’s intuition is far more accurate than some in academia are willing to admit.

This nation’s privatized system of campaign finance saddles the majority with a dire political problem: they cannot afford the cost of a democracy that meaningfully represents them. This proclamation is the insight of Ferguson’s “investment theory” of party competition. Those who are willing and able to pay these costs as “investments” will receive favorable policies from the government that they have helped finance. The litany of evidence establishing this oligarchic tendency in the U.S. is becoming difficult to ignore. The policy preferences of the relatively few wealthy “investors” frequently differ from those of the middle class and the poor, but U.S. legislation mirrors the preferences of the former group. Thus public policy fails to reflect what the majority has consistently demanded, including gun control, reduced college tuition, strengthening Social Security, universal health care, stricter climate change regulation, higher taxes on the rich and corporations, and a federal job guarantee, to list a few. Whether one adopts the “investment theory” or other perspectives such as the “institutional corruption theory,” it is clear that the public is forced to endure policies that respond not to the majority but to the few who can afford to purchase government favor.

It is against this backdrop that we implemented a U.S.-Census-balanced survey of 2,450 people from March 30 and April 9, 2012, with an embedded experimental design, to understand the current state of public support for campaign finance reform. It is common to frame the debate over campaign finance regulation as one of two warring value positions. Those advocating for political equality want more regulation and less private money in politics, compared with those advocating for freedom of expression who fight for less regulation and more private money. Yet we found a distinct third dimension in our research: a segment of the population supports ending the dependence on private money altogether. These respondents support public funding, free media time, and public matching fund programs. We took this newly found dimension as our dependent variable in examining public attitudes on campaign finance reform (CFR), and asked if political knowledge, cultural predispositions, and political narratives could alter support for these proposals.

The results of our study contain surprises and promises for achieving a more democratically responsive campaign finance system. In one unconventional finding, our study contradicted the argument of some scholars that providing voters more information will not help the case for CFR. To the contrary, we found general political knowledge to be an important predictor of support for CFR. But this knowledge has an uneven polarizing effect depending on the predispositions of the respondent. We measured value predispositions using a battery of questions derived from cultural theory to label respondents as individualist (e.g., libertarians), egalitarian (e.g., social democrats), or hierarch (e.g., those seeking strong governmental authority to limit individual choices). We found that strong egalitarians and strong hierarchs tend to support CFR, while strong individualists do not. For respondents with high levels of political knowledge, the gap between these two sides widens, compared to those with low levels of political knowledge.

When we introduced different narratives about why the political system in the U.S. is broken, our study produced further insights of use to reformers. Borrowing from the narrative policy framework, we randomly assigned our survey respondents to different narratives about money in politics to determine the influence of such narratives on support levels for CFR. One narrative — which we call the “mechanical narrative” — explained that the lack of democratic responsiveness resulted from a system that is “broken” since “members of Congress must spend the majority of their time begging for money that they need to get reelected.” When conducting regression analyses and Bayesian posterior simulations, we found that this “mechanical narrative” had the largest, statistically significant effect, producing increased support for CFR. Our findings differ from others’, who claim that narratives about intentional harm such as corrupt behavior (as opposed to structurally-created problems) increase support for CFR. The “mechanical narrative” increases support for CFR across all cultural types with higher levels of political knowledge. We conclude that mass appeals using this mechanical, or “broken system,” narrative would likely increase support for public financing among politically knowledgeable egalitarians and hierarchs, while curbing dissent among knowledgeable individualists.

Our research indicates a path out of the meta problem that campaign finance reform presents.  To date, CFR has been yet another policy with broad-based support that languishes from insufficient political will to overcome the contrary preferences of those who can afford to purchase political influence. The democratic problem presented by this inaction serves to compound others, as the current campaign finance system itself is a root cause of inaction on other majority-benefiting policies. Our research indicates that a carefully crafted CFR narrative that stresses structural defects rather than corrupt intent, and that seeks to persuade certain audiences — those with particular value predispositions and a degree of political knowledge, for instance — can increase the likelihood of achieving money-in-politics reforms that sustain rather than impede American democracy.   

Paul D. Jorgensen is assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Geoboo Song is assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of Arkansas. Michael D. Jones is assistant professor at the Oregon State University School of Public Policy. They are coauthors of the paper Public Support for Campaign Finance Reform: The Role of Policy Narratives, Cultural Predispositions, and Political Knowledge in Collective Policy Preference Formation.


Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation’ here. 

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