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Expert Brief

Do Small Donors Increase Partisanship?

As the second week of the government shutdown draws to a close, voices from across the nation have weighed in on possible causes of the seemingly intractable polarization gripping Washington.

  • Brent Ferguson
Published: October 11, 2013

As the second week of the govern­ment shut­down draws to a close, voices from across the nation have weighed in on possible causes of the seem­ingly intract­able polar­iz­a­tion grip­ping Wash­ing­ton. Yester­day’s thought-provok­ing post by Walter Shapiro raises import­ant ques­tions about the role of small, ideo­lo­gical donor­s—­does reli­ance on their contri­bu­tions allow some politi­cians to spurn big money donors who prefer the status quo, thereby contrib­ut­ing to the partisan brinks­man­ship so common today? Shapiro names Ted Cruz specific­ally, contend­ing that the Texas Senat­or’s 21-hour speech on the Senate floor may have sought to encour­age small dona­tions from like-minded voters across the coun­try. While commend­ing public finan­cing systems such as New York City’s, Shapiro warns that promo­tion of small-donor demo­cracy could lead to more “inad­vert­ent mischief” in polit­ics due to increased polar­iz­a­tion.

Shapiro’s concern about “unin­ten­ded consequences” of vari­ous reform propos­als undoubtedly deserves seri­ous atten­tion. Yet care­ful study of campaign finance reform propos­als advoc­ated by the Bren­nan Center­—which would lower contri­bu­tion limits and provide candid­ates with six dollars of public money for every dollar of money raised from small donor­s—are unlikely to further polar­ize Congress.

First, while it is true that extreme partis­ans such as Cruz and Michele Bach­mann can attract small dollar dona­tions from ardent support­ers, big money donors still play an undeni­ably large (and more damaging) role in our elec­tions. Recent exper­i­ence shows that big spend­ers, from Shel­don Adel­son to the Koch broth­ers to the Club for Growth, are apt to be as ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme as any $10 donor. As the Wash­ing­ton Post points out, the Club for Growth, which receives millions from wealthy finan­ci­ers, “has become extremely success­ful at encour­aging uncom­prom­ising voices on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. Ted Cruz.” The same group last year sought to defeat Repub­lic­ans that suppor­ted an increase in the debt ceil­ing or opposed a govern­ment shut­down. 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.” Like­wise, we know from exper­i­ence that some­times small donors provide a signi­fic­ant portion of the campaign funds of candid­ates that dare to promote bipar­tis­an­ship, such as John McCain and Barack Obama.

Even if small donors were shown to drive partis­an­ship (and the evid­ence suggests it is big donors driv­ing our current dysfunc­tion), the answer to that prob­lem would not be to revert to reli­ance on a small number of wealthy donor­s—­do­ing so would be akin to waving a white flag and asking corpor­a­tions and other special interests to rescue us from aver­age citizens. Rather than return­ing power to moneyed interests, we must find solu­tions to partis­an­ship that involve the entire elect­or­ate, as our Framers envi­sioned.  

Moreover it is import­ant not to discount the other perni­cious effects of big money in Wash­ing­ton. Shapiro is care­ful not to praise “special interests that only want a small handout from the Treas­ury,” but contrasts that seem­ingly minor issue with “bring[ing] down the govern­ment out of misplaced ideo­lo­gical zeal.” While small handouts are undesir­able, they are by no means the most prob­lem­atic result of our current campaign finance system. Rather, wealthy donors repres­en­ted by lobby­ists distort the agenda in Wash­ing­ton, often help­ing whole indus­tries avoid proper regu­la­tion. Legis­lat­ors depend­ent on campaign cash devote time and energy to prop­ping up this system, often passing short-term tax breaks aimed at special interests that will be oblig­ated to ask (and spend) for exten­sions of the loop­holes. As Martin Gilens showed in a recent book, this system that focuses on wealthy interests results in “a complete lack of . . . respons­ive­ness to the pref­er­ences of the poor.” Further, when the pref­er­ence of the afflu­ent and middle class diverge, it is the pref­er­ences of the afflu­ent that prevail

In perhaps the greatest tragedy result­ing from the current state of affairs, members of the public often with­draw from the polit­ical system because of frus­tra­tion and feel­ings of power­less­ness.  In a recent CNN poll, 86 percent of Amer­ic­ans stated they believed elec­ted offi­cials are mostly influ­enced by the pres­sure they receive on issues from major campaign contrib­ut­ors and two-thirds said elec­tions are usually for sale to the candid­ate who raises the most money.

Finally, it is unlikely that a match­ing funds system would increase candid­ates’ reli­ance on small donors that are partic­u­larly partisan, and it may even decrease such reli­ance. Most proposed systems would not provide match­ing funds for dona­tions that come from outside a legis­lat­or’s home state or district, like those appar­ently sought by Cruz. Thus, politi­cians would have little incent­ive to make national head­lines as an extrem­ist, because they would bene­fit more from a far smal­ler number of contri­bu­tions from local resid­ents. Import­antly, match­ing funds are not designed to attract strong partis­ans that often already contrib­ute to campaigns; they are instead inten­ded to make those frus­trated by the current system feel like their contri­bu­tions could make a differ­ence.  

Luck­ily, we do not have to spec­u­late about whether public finan­cing laws broaden and diver­sify donor bases and reduce reli­ance on big money: as Shapiro notes, the cities of New York and Los Angeles have had “exem­plary” public finan­cing systems for years and exper­i­enced great success. In 2012, the Bren­nan Center released a report demon­strat­ing that the New York City public finan­cing system has funda­ment­ally changed polit­ical campaigns: work­ing and middle income resid­ents in New York City donate more money to campaigns and make up a greater portion of candid­ates’ fund­ing base than in the statewide system.

While the partis­an­ship that domin­ates Wash­ing­ton today must be addressed, we should not fear that encour­aging small dollar dona­tions to candid­ates would make things worse. On the contrary, if small dollar dona­tions are matched with public funds and lower contri­bu­tion limits, we can give every­day Amer­ic­ans a greater voice in polit­ical discus­sions and reduce reli­ance on wealthy donors.