The American Political Science Association Task Force report on political polarization, Negotiating Agreement in Politics (2013) includes a discussion of the role of campaign spending. The co-authors of this analysis, Michael Barber and Nolan McCarty, write that the role is small. But they suggest that there is more work to be done, raising the question of whether some spur to polarization might come from the rising importance to candidates of ideologically motivated individual donors.

Before turning to that question, it is worth noting what else the co-authors have to say about the impact of money. They refer to the research that shows the “weak connection” between contributions and roll call votes, and between campaign spending and election outcomes. One would not know this from standard media coverage of the issue. This is not to say, of course, that money in politics does not present important public policy issues. But one is reminded once again that much of what passes for a telling critique of campaign finance in America is weakly or inconsistently supported by social science research.

McCarty has written on this topic on other occasions in similarly guarded and balanced terms. In a critique of the policy response to the financial crisis, Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy (2013), he and his co-authors described campaign finance reform as a “small ball” answer to income inequality and political polarization. Political spending counts for something, without a doubt, but it does not count as much as is suggested by the fevered debate on the subject. For example, McCarty et al. write about the 2008 vote on TARP. Did they find that contributions influenced the vote? Yes, possibly, but only at the margins. Ideology seems to routinely trump the political influence that money can buy.

As McCarty and Barber acknowledge, the connection between individual, ideologically driven donations is for the moment largely speculative. But the connection, if found, may not be the one supposed. In an earlier book written with Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Inequality and Unequal Riches (2006) McCarty and his co-authors suggested that polarization may be driving political spending behavior, not the other way around. In any event, they concluded then, as McCarty and Barber do now in this new report, that there is “no simple causal link leading from the demand for more cash to polarization.”

Also, the world of campaign finance is complicated and the role of the individual donor is multifaceted. Large donors can work at cross-purposes. For example, we have seen how a Super PAC has sprung up to fund resistance to what its leadership views as strategically misguided ideological politics. At least one other Super PAC is looking for money on the same scale to advance just such a politics. And the “good” can be mixed with the “bad”: certain donors giving out of ideological ardor are “small,” not “big,” donors, and their contributions are often heralded as an antidote to poisonous big-money political influence.

In the face of these and other writings and questions, there arises the question of why campaign finance reform retains its prominence in the public debate as one answer to the frustrations with the state of American politics. Its appeal certainly resides in part in its accessibility. No one complaining about the failures of the country’s politics risks looking foolish by denouncing the role of money. The charges are credible. And to the degree that the demand for campaign funds exceeds the regulated supply, resulting in a political money chase, there is a solid basis for complaint.

The issue is accessible also in the sense that there is plenty of data. It is one of those stresses on the political system that is well documented, that one can clearly see. It brings to mind the tale about the fellow looking for his car keys under the street lamp only because the patch of ground he is inspecting is well-lit.

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