Fordham University Law Professor Zephyr Teachout earned a place of distinction among anticorruption activists for making the fight against corruption the centerpiece of her spirited campaign to oust the incumbent in New York’s September 9 gubernatorial primary (as well as a good deal of attention on this blog, click here and here). Her effort also deserves special recognition in academia: surely no other professor has produced evidence to undercut her own academic work so fast as Professor Teachout. Appearing days before the primary, her Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin to Citizens United contends that large private donations to political candidates so favor candidates supported by the wealthy that the future of American democracy is at risk. Yet while preliminary figures suggest the well-known, well-organized incumbent outspent her by somewhere between 40 to 50 to 1, she did surprisingly well, polling 180,336 votes to the incumbent’s 327,150. If money so dominates American political campaigns, it is hard to see why Professor Teachout got so far with so little. Of course, she did lose the election. More to the point, even if she had won, her claim that money is overwhelming American elections cannot be dis-proven by a single example. It may be that her race was an outlier and that most of the time, money does talk. So what does the accumulated research on the influence of money on American elections show? That money has little or no effect on election outcomes. As a recent paper by Professor Jeff Milyo reports,
“[T]here is something of a scholarly consensus, at least for campaign spending in congressional races. . . .[I]n stark contrast to the popular wisdom. . . that elections are for sale to the highest bidder[,]. . . decades of social science research consistently reveal a far more limited role for campaign spending. . . . [T]he best efforts at identifying the treatment effect of money in congressional races yield fairly similar substantive results: candidate spending has very modest to negligible causal impact on candidate vote shares.”
It could be that the real effect of campaign contributions comes once the candidate has been elected. Money might only tip the electoral scales slightly, but that slight tip might be enough to dictate how a politician votes on legislation once elected. A plausible hypothesis, and one commonly assumed to be true in popular accounts of the American political system, but again the weight of academic research is to the contrary. In August 2013 a group of American scholars summed up the learning on the influence of campaign contributions and voting by members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In their words, it is “weak in some studies to non-existent in others.” Much of this research, they noted, was conducted before the recent polarization of the electorate: “It is therefore even less likely today that one would expect to find contributions — and especially contributions disentangled from lobbying — as explanations for public roll call votes.” So money’s baleful influence comes through lobbyists? For those looking for conclusive evidence that this where money does the talking, the scholarly literature again disappoints. Here is how Professor David Lowry’s article 2013 summarized that literature:
“The empirical literature as a whole remains extremely mixed in terms of finding evidence that organized interests influence policy. Indeed, three major surveys of the literature. . . reached remarkably similar conclusions. . . .‘[T]he unavoidable conclusion is that PACs and direct lobbying sometimes strongly influence Congressional voting, sometimes have marginal influence and sometimes fail to exert influence’. Even more telling . . . most fail to even get their issue on the policy agenda. [These recent] findings are broadly consistent with . .. earlier findings [that] described the world of lobbying as lacking any of the certainty of a supermarket with its well-defined roles, goals and prices. Rather, the lobbying environment is one governed by uncertainty in goals, means and, especially, the relationships between them.
“Virtually all sociologists and political scientists publishing in the top journals hypothesize that … interest groups … influence public policy, and it is safe to assume that they generally expect the impact to be substantial. This hypothesis is not as well supported by the data as we might expect. The impact of political organizations is significantly different from zero, by conventional statistical tests, only about half the time, and important in policy terms (as assessed by the authors) in just over a fifth. Indeed, this conclusion almost certainly underestimates the number of failures given the usual bias against publishing null findings.”
Given the weight of scholarly evidence on the role of money in American politics and policymaking, perhaps Professor Teachout’s claim that the private financing of political campaigns is “very dangerous to the health of the nation with “potentially tragic” consequences (p.8) is a tad overstated? That is not to say that it is not without its flaws and that there are not sensible reforms that could improve its operation. But those, and a longer look at the remedies Professor Teachout proposes, are for another post.