The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to reduce polarization? Give parties more money.

(Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg News)
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In a recently released Brookings Institution report, Tom Mann and Anthony Corrado aim to set the record straight about the impact of campaign finance reform on political parties. First, they say that reforms — notably the McCain-Feingold Act’s ban on soft money — have not weakened the parties. Second, they brush aside arguments that making campaign finance laws more party-friendly would reduce ideological polarization between the two sides.

Our new research suggests that they could be wrong.  In our forthcoming book, we show that campaign finance laws that empower parties do lead to less polarization. Party organizations do, in fact, behave differently than other partisan groups by mediating ideological sources of money and funneling it to moderate candidates. It may seem counterintuitive to fight polarization by empowering parties, but states with “party-centered” campaign finance laws tend to be less polarized than states that constrain how the parties can support candidates.

We are not arguing that campaign finance laws are the underlying cause of polarization. But the rules often advantage the most ideological elements in each party coalition, who have an abiding interest in pushing for candidates who espouse their views of the world. By contrast, the party organization is typically controlled by elected officials and experienced politicos who put the highest priority on winning elections. Limiting party organizations therefore shifts the balance of power within party coalitions away from the pragmatists toward the purists. The result is more officeholders who hold very conservative or liberal views.

Mann and Corrado make the conceptual mistake of linking a financially strong party organization to programmatic control of rank-and-file by party leaders. But we know from research on party organizations (here, here and here) that the party committees do not hold their members accountable for their votes by refusing to give them money or campaigning against them, as the purist factions sometimes do. Instead, the party typically gives members a free pass, which is exactly the reason lawmakers may feel able to compromise on legislation. The paradox of our argument is that a stronger party organization could imply a weaker programmatic party.

In our study, we argue that the unmediated financial support from donors to candidates encourages polarization. Richard Pildes has made a similar point in The Monkey Cage here, and others here and here. Donors are highly ideological and they support candidates who share their views. This is true for small donors as well as large (here we largely agree with Mann and Corrado). Using data from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey, we show a strong bimodal distribution in the policy preferences of small and large donors (i.e., those giving less or more than $200) compared with the American electorate, which is normally distributed skewing slightly left of center:

A key point is that politicians must often rely heavily on ideological donors because the parties play a limited role in financing campaigns. Individual donors and partisan issue groups prefer to give to candidates who appear to share their views (see here, here, and here). Parties, in contrast, are more likely to fund moderates. The parties don’t do this because they want moderate policies, per se, but because such candidates tend to be closest to the average voter in the district and therefore have the best chance of winning.

The graph below shows how parties and groups allocate their money across incumbents from different ideological backgrounds in state legislative elections from 1996 to 2008. The line in each figure indicates the proportion of money from that source being allocated to incumbents at that point in the ideological spectrum. (We use these data on ideology, which includes only officeholders). Parties, more than other committees, concentrate their money on moderates rather than the ideologues. Note that issue groups give a larger share of contributions to candidates at the liberal and conservative extremes. Unsurprisingly, business organizations tend to promote moderates with a decided tilt toward conservatives, but not the most extreme conservatives.

But does all this matter for polarization in legislatures? In state legislatures, it does. The figure below shows the ideological distribution of officeholders in the Democratic and Republican parties in the 20 most professional legislatures.  These are the legislatures where campaign money matters more and that probably have greater relevance for Congress. The top graph shows states that limit how much parties can raise and/or contribute, and the bottom graph shows states with no limits at all.

Not surprisingly, polarization exists in both sets of states because the parties are different. But there is a clear difference between these two groups of states. In states where parties face more restrictive campaign finance laws, legislators are further from the center than in states where parties are financially unconstrained.

Thus, we disagree with Mann and Corrado’s conclusion that campaign finance has no bearing on polarization. Giving party organizations more money should, over several election cycles, better insulate legislators from the wrath of extremist factions.

Having money inside the party structure also will go a long way toward improving transparency and accountability, which is something Mann and Corrado do not address. They worry understandably about corruption if “soft money” returns. But if the party network is as tight as they say it is — with party leaders helping to raise money for outside organizations — there’s no reason to keep money away from party leaders. The process is already corrupting if we conceptualize the parties as Mann and Corrado do.

We are not necessarily advocating a return of soft money, but our research suggests it is worthwhile raising the limits on party financing considerably or even removing them altogether.  Helping parties raise and spend money won’t make polarization or gridlock disappear, but it could attenuate their most toxic forms.

Ray LaRaja and Brian Scaffner are political scientists at the University of Massachusetts.