Big Political Donors Just Looking for Favors? Apparently Not.

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, November 10, 2008

The Center for Responsive Politics recently estimated that it cost $5.8 billion to finance the 2008 general elections. To most people that is a staggeringly large sum and evidence of the profoundly corrupting role that money plays in politics, but to some very smart political watchers, the better question is why that amount is so small.

Consider three important groups of contributors: The securities and investments industry ponied up about $123 million. The real estate industry put in $106 million. And health professionals gave about $70 million, according to the watchdog group. These three groups know that the next administration and Congress will probably rewrite the rules in their fields. Washington has been abuzz with talk about new regulations for the financial industry, legislators are already plunged up to their necks in housing market rescue plans, and there are likely to be dramatic changes in how health care is financed in the United States. The changes could influence the way these groups operate over the next decade or two.

If you thought campaign contributions bought you goodwill, and you knew that decisions made in the next couple of years might be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in potential profits and losses, wouldn't you be willing to "invest" a lot more in the outcome?

A good chunk of the $5.8 billion, moreover, was raised through small contributions from citizens unlikely to think that their $50 check would buy them special favors. Another portion came from interest groups such as the gun lobby and labor unions, who may give money less because they want specific paybacks and more because they want friendly politicians to stay in office, and unfriendly politicians to stay out.

That's not to say that no favors are ever given in exchange for political contributions, but it does suggest that the conventional narrative about the role of money in politics has some explaining to do: If corporate America thinks of contributions as an "investment," it appears willing to invest remarkably little. Federal discretionary spending in 2008 was more than $1.125 trillion, and total spending was $2.995 trillion. That's $2,995 billion per year. If you set aside ethics and think of campaign contributions purely as a business investment, isn't a few billion absurdly little, given the stakes?

In a paper published a few years ago, the researchers Stephen Ansolabehere, John M. de Figueiredo and James Snyder dubbed this question Tullock's puzzle -- for George Mason University professor Gordon Tullock, who first raised this question in 1972. Ansolabehere and his colleagues argued that corporate contributions made through political action committees were not that different from the small contributions of individual voters -- they reflected the personal tastes and political preferences of executives, rather than scheming attempts at political manipulation.

Recently, another political scientist went even further: He suggested that campaign contributions may actually play an overlooked -- and salutary -- role in politics.

Kevin Esterling of the University of California at Riverside matched the size of political contributions to 203 members of Congress with how the lawmakers operated in the House. He found that money systematically flowed away from those who grandstanded before cameras and constituents, and toward "workhorses," the lawmakers who immersed themselves in the minutiae of policy.

Esterling evaluated a large number of congressional committee hearings. He coded each sentence that lawmakers spoke to see if it reflected analytical ability -- statements that probed the antecedents and consequences of policy, in contrast to statements designed to make good sound bites. Esterling quickly established a clear pattern: Lawmakers who were the most analytical at hearings received the largest campaign contributions. In turn, they were more likely to be elected.

Effectively, Esterling argued, campaign contributions increase the number of workhorses in Congress and reduce the number of "show horses."

The relationship between analytical ability and campaign contributions was significant: If all the lawmakers are put on a single line going from the least analytical to the most analytical, each jump in analytical ability -- as measured by what statisticians call a standard deviation -- resulted in about $435,000 more in campaign contributions.

In last week's elections, Esterling found that campaign contributions appeared to mediate a clear relationship between analytical ability and the odds of reelection: Both Republicans and Democrats with above-average analytical capability received significantly more in campaign contributions than their show-horse colleagues. In turn, lawmakers who were below average in analytical ability received 7 percent fewer votes on average than those who had above-average analytical skills. In the 2006 elections, reduced analytical ability lowered a lawmaker's vote share by nearly 10 percent. The same patterns held true in the 2004 elections as well.

"If you have competing arguments, the better argument tends to prevail," Esterling said, explaining why he thought it was good that campaign contributions appeared to help lawmakers with analytical minds. Thomas Jefferson "said truth prevails if you engage in give-and-take behavior."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company