The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is public funding really electing extremists?

Source: Creative Commons

Last week, John Sides described some of Andrew Hall’s recent work examining the relationship between the public funding of elections and legislative polarization. Hall’s research suggests that public financing of campaigns is accelerating polarization in the state legislatures in which it has been tried.

We have a paper forthcoming from State Politics & Policy Quarterly (you can read it here) that takes a different approach to the question and produces somewhat different results. The quick version is that we find no relationship at all between public funding and legislative polarization: Legislators who accept full public funding of their campaigns are no more or less ideologically extreme than their traditionally funded colleagues. Our study examined the behavior of individual legislators, comparing the ideal points of those who first achieved office through public financing with those who achieved it through traditional funding. We operated under the assumption that the key question concerns the strategic behavior of individual politicians: Does their source of funding make them behave differently? This question implies that public funding should not affect the behavior of legislators who did not accept it.

Public financing of campaigns comes in several flavors across the states. Wisconsin and Minnesota have experimented with partial funding of state legislative candidates; it’s not enough money to run a full campaign, but it may help encourage some candidates to enter who otherwise wouldn’t. Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, however, have full-funding, “clean election” systems, in which state legislative candidates who opt into the system are given enough money to run a competitive campaign and they may raise no more on their own.

In contrast to Hall’s analysis, which groups all publicly funded states together regardless of the level of funding provided to candidates, we focused exclusively on the “clean” systems in Arizona and Maine because we thought public funding was most likely to affect legislator extremism in those two states. (We would expect such effects under Connecticut’s clean system, as well, but that state adopted it much later than the other two.) Miller’s research demonstrates that full funding like that in Arizona and Maine changes the behavior of candidates (reducing their time spent fundraising and increasing their time spent meeting with voters), while partially-funded candidates behave no differently from those with traditional, private financing.

Similarly, it’s reasonable to suspect that full funding (but not partial funding) might affect the ideological extremism of candidates. For instance, since frequent contributors tend to be more ideologically extreme (as Adam Bonica has found), donors may exert a polarizing influence on legislative candidates, who might seek to repay their supporters after the election. On the other hand, McCarty et al. find that ideologically extreme members of Congress have somewhat more difficulty raising money than do their more moderate colleagues. Thus, it could be argued that eliminating private donations might foster either more or less extreme legislators. If we are to expect an effect of public funding on polarization, we therefore believed it to be most likely to exist in states where candidates receive enough money that they can credibly run with no private funding at all.

Hall’s paper recognizes that there are substantial differences between these two funding systems, and importantly, his findings hold for a number of different tests. So why do our findings differ from his? The most obvious explanation is that the two papers are answering different questions. Hall’s approach examined state legislatures as a whole, comparing overall polarization in these chambers with those of similar states that use only traditional campaign financing, whereas our paper focuses on the link between acceptance of public funding and the behavior of individual legislators. We believe that if public funding is causing more polarization, we should observe a relationship between candidates accepting large, full subsidies and their subsequent behavior as legislators. That being said, given that we examine only legislators who entered after the implementation of public funding, the question begs deeper exploration and we think ours and Hall’s paper are only the first steps toward answering it.

What Hall’s paper and ours have in common is the clear finding that public funding of campaigns does not produce less polarized political systems. At the very least, the current state of things suggests that reformers looking to curb polarization via campaign finance reform should consider looking at ideas other than public funding.