The Politics of Party Campaign Finance

October 23, 2015
posted by Bob Bauer

In a thoughtful article, Michael Kang of Emory has taken on the question of whether de-regulated political parties, taking in larger sums of money, can truly act as a bulwark against polarization—or only as yet another agent of the wealthy and their policy preferences.  He doubts donors would expect from parties any less responsiveness or gratitude. If the committed class of large donors is ideologically polarized, it is hard for him to see how party officials could resist its demands and retain the freedom to move party politics toward the center, closer to the ground for compromise.

This is one aspect of the normative case against party de-regulation he would put up against views presented by Rick Pildes, among others. (He has other concerns: for example, that “even if de-regulation of party campaign finance assigns the right balance of power among party actors, it neglects distributional equality concerns that were once a main focus of campaign finance policymaking.”  Kang, Michael S., The Brave New World of Party Campaign Finance Law (2015). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 101, 2016; Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 15-365, at 57. Available at SSRN:

On this question of the direction into which parties would be pushed by the larger donors, Professor Kang gives a fairly straightforward picture of the donor and her motivation, and of the relationship of donor to party official.  The donors on this account will give only on conditions; the party officials, to get the money, will meet them.  The well-to-do donors do not have multiple motives: their demands, at least as the party official would interpret them, are of the “all or nothing” kind.  Is this a fully satisfactory account?

Donors also contribute out a mix of party and ideological commitments, and often for other reasons, more personal than political in nature.  A particular donor might respond well to the party leader asking for the support.  Or, suspicious of the direction of the party as a whole, she might like certain of the candidates the party plans to support and give for that reason—perhaps at the urging of those candidates, organized by party officials to support the appeal for funds.

There is also more to say about the party leaders’ role.  It is a mistake to discount the effects of smart politics and patience. There are various strategies that party leaders and their staffs employ to build the case for a contribution.  The good politician looks for various interests to which he can appeal; he will work around or minimize the obvious differences to locate the grounds of affinity. A prospective donor’s peers within the relevant business or professional community can be mobilized to help make the case. Political leadership “close to home”, at the state and local level, may also have a part to play.

The leader does all this with the goal of attracting support in ways that do not limit his freedom or flexibility as a party leader in directing the funds.  He has a party to run.  The “outside group” is in business often for the very different purpose of offering just the exclusive ideological satisfaction a donor may be seeking.

None of this is to say that when the party seeks out the larger contributions from an ideologically committed class of donors, all grounds of resistance can be easily overcome, or that the donors will not have expectations—including ideological preferences– they would press the party to heed or appreciate.  The initial contacts could turn out to be less fruitful for that reason.  The first contribution could be smaller than requested.  But the relationship has been established and more can be asked in the future.

The point here is that the best policy will reflect the complexities of donor motivation and of the strategies parties use to build support, and it will also keep in view the fundamental differences between parties’ and outside groups’ missions.  The benefits of more de-regulated party financing should not be oversold, of course.  How well it will serve the purposes claimed for it is largely unknowable.  It is plausible to believe that it is worth a try, and less convincing to imagine that all is lost, and that the parties will come to be bought in the way that donors are seen to buy “outside groups.”

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