The Road to Bipartisanship Does Not Lie Through Campaign Finance Reform

The amount of money crossing the national and state party books is seen as a good indicator of party strength. So when party soft money was banned in 2002, opponents of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act proclaimed, in simple syllogistic fashion, that parties would perforce be weakened. And when subsequent judicial decisions and administrative actions or inactions loosened the restrictions on political money not directly flowing through the parties, the further weakening of parties was inevitable. These claims seem perfectly logical and sensible, but they fall short of achieving empirical confirmation—over the last few years, two decades and century.

That’s from a very nice new paper (PDF) from Thomas Mann and Anthony Corrado entitled “Party Polarization and Campaign Finance,” published this week by Brookings. If you want to understand the recent history of campaign finance regulation in the United States as well as its tenuous relationship with party polarization, I encourage you to give it a read.

In particular, Mann and Corrado note that the informal network nature of parties makes the idea of disempowering them by defunding them pretty much a non-starter. They also go over the recent research on the ideological stances of small donors, large donors, and megadonors, noting some important differences but also concluding that such donors have played only a very small role, and possibly no role at all, in the polarization of Congress. Appropriately, they address differences between the two parties on these important trends.

Their conclusion is rather a disappointing one for those who desire both depolarization and less spending in politics: not only is campaign finance reform unlikely to mitigate partisanship, but you’re probably not going to get serious campaign finance reform in the current polarized environment. Nonetheless, I strongly encourage people concerned about these issues to read this piece.

[Cross-posted at The Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.