Friday, May 16, 2014

Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Just a quick post here as I’m in Ankara trying to catch my breath after the flurry of activity at semester’s end. Hopefully in a week’s time I’ll be doing some real writing as I watch the Aegean Sea slowly pass by Didim…

Assuming Tayyip doesn’t block blogspot in the next few minutes (I’m not kidding folks), I felt the need to expand on an interesting post Seth Masket had today over at Mischiefs of Factions, where he presented a wonderful graph courtesy of Poole, Rosenthal, McCarty, and Bonica.  Masket rightly describes the situation described here as a conundrum, we know the super-rich are underwriting a greater and greater proportion of campaign costs and that as a class most everyone of the big donors fit between the party medians within congress, so it appears that they aren’t getting everything that they pay for.  Even the “evil” David Koch inhabits this middle ground, though his brother Charles is barely to right of the median point (clearly making him the evil brother).  This makes intuitive sense.  All these super-rich players are true intense policy demanders; they have real policy goals that they don’t want to see cocked up by extremist policy makers.  This echoes some research Ray La Raja and I did a couple years back in APR where we found that campaign contributors aren’t the polarizing force in American politics that many assume them to be.  Using ANES data back to 1972, we concluded that politicians aren’t particularly responsive to ideologically extreme donors as they are strategic in mobilizing ideologues in pursuit of financial resources towards electoral goals.

Broadly speaking, political scientists are a rather skeptical lot when it comes to campaign finance reform (at least for those of us who study it closely).  Especially frustrating to us are the repeated calls towards reforms that we know would be counter productive based on the empirical work we are intimately familiar with.  The campaign finance reform quarters, quite frankly, are lousy with terrible ideas that would only serve to exacerbate serious problems in American politics today.  Exhibit A, polarization.  Since our piece, more recent studies have shed light on the role of mega donors, largely because of innovations in the estimation of their ideal points. I’d go so far as to say that there is growing support that large donors are acting as a moderating force, a possibility that Ray and I looked for, but couldn't find given data limitations.  We also suspected that there is the potential for small donors to be a polarizing force should some short term trends continue.  Poole et al’s graph here seems to give us some real empirical evidence to support that idea. 

One persistent call of the reform movement is for some kind of structural support to encourage and/or subsidize small donors through matching funds, clean election laws, and the like.  While there is a nice, democratic, and altruistic ring to the term "small donor," we should proceed with caution, as populistic impulses rarely have positive outcomes when they are enacted into law.  As of now, whatever polarizing effects small donors have on our policy makers are probably being counter-balanced by larger donors.  Amplifying the polarizing voices by juking the system in their favor might only serve to drive the parties farther apart from one another.  While I’m generally not an alarmist when it comes to polarization, I’d say we’ve got enough of it right now as it is. 

And yes, this has some relevance to the invisible primary.  While fundraising is but a part of the game, it is of real significance.  It is also one that is in constant flux due to the shifting legal sands that our finance regime is based upon and the adaptability of the players.  If there’s one constant in the history of campaign finance, it’s unintended consequences.  Virtually every goal of reformers is thwarted in an election cycle or two, and the “problems” they were trying to address wind up being more entrenched and acute.  Should legislation have the unintended consequences of enhancing the voices of the most ideological extreme portions of the financial constituency, the triangulation of party actors in the invisible primary will undoubtedly be affected.

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