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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.