Campaign finance reformers are worried about the future. They contend that two Supreme Court rulings — the McCutcheon decision in March and the 2010 Citizens United decision — will magnify inequality in U.S. politics.
In both cases, the court majority relaxed constraints on how money can be spent on or donated to political campaigns. By allowing more private money to flow to campaigns, the critics maintain, the court has allowed the rich an unfair advantage in shaping political outcomes and made "one dollar, one vote" (in one formulation) the measure of our corrupted democracy.
This argument misses the mark for at least four reasons.
First, the money spent on federal campaigns is not excessive; quite the contrary. Second, elections — and politics in general — are inherently unequal for many reasons other than money. Third, incumbency is by far the greatest source of this inequality, and the limits on contributions — and thus on most candidates' spending — that reformers want to retain would only worsen it. Finally, the claim that generous donors and big independent spenders in effect buy federal elections and policies is contradicted by the empirical evidence.
Politics is inevitably expensive in a vast, diverse, media-centered country like ours. Town meetings, soapboxes and water-cooler conversations are cheap and important, but most campaigning is done through televised debates, advertising, direct mail and other costly media. Money is not exactly speech, but it is essential to communicating political ideas effectively, and even negative advertising conveys useful information to voters.
Indeed, we should probably spend more on elections than we do. In the 2012 election, parties, candidates and political committees not directly affiliated with them spent $7 billion. That may seem like a lot of money, but consider it in context. In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10.4 billion — almost 50% more — on cosmetic surgery! In a 2003 study, Harvard political scientist Stephen Ansolabehere and his colleagues found that campaign spending as a share of GDP had not risen appreciably in more than a century.
Equal opportunity in politics is impossible to define or control. Some candidates have less money but more of other assets: organizational skills, name recognition, dynastic ties, contacts with opinion leaders, charisma, telegenic appeal, convincing arguments, personal wealth, key endorsements, compelling life stories and stronger party support. Because of these non-monetary factors, higher-spending candidates often lose. There is simply no way to equalize such factors, nor should we try.
The most important electoral advantage, by far, is incumbency, which profoundly weakens the political competition that a robust democracy requires. Unlike the other advantages, we could reduce this one in several ways, such as with free or low-cost TV time or providing the equivalent of incumbents' franking privilege.
Instead, the very restrictions on campaign spending that reformers have been enacting since the 1970s almost always increase the already immense advantages of incumbents: seniority, name recognition, party support, free mailings to constituents, power over legislation and redistricting, and the easier access to contributions that these advantages bring.
Perhaps most important, incumbents write the campaign finance laws, including public funding schemes. Unsurprisingly, when these laws are enacted by legislatures rather than voter initiative, they almost always limit the very spending that would help challengers reduce these vast incumbent advantages.
Finally, contributions actually affect policy decisions less than reformers think. Studies show that most contributions are well below the legal ceilings and go to candidates whose well-established views already agree with the donors' views. Such contributions serve to fortify more than to persuade, to improve donor access rather than to buy votes.
Political scientists also find little relationship between money and votes once they control for other factors relevant to constituents, especially their underlying interests. And campaign spending seems to have only a minuscule effect on outcomes. Political scientists studying congressional elections over a 20-year period found that an extra $175,000 in spending would increase a candidate's vote tally by only a third of a percentage point, partly because opponents respond by increasing their spending. The 2012 presidential election confirmed this arm's race analogy.
Loose, misleading talk about "the appearance of corruption" and "buying" elections probably damages public confidence in our politics more than the campaign spending permitted by the Supreme Court's recent decisions. The point isn't that our campaign finance system is perfect or that reform is futile — far from it — but that limits on spending aggravate inequalities by further entrenching incumbent advantages over challengers.
Better alternatives are available. As noted above, candidates with significant support should get free or low-cost TV time. Legal reforms can encourage non-wealthy citizens to give to campaigns. Greater disclosure of who gives what to whom can enable voters to draw their own conclusions about the influence of candidates' donors. Most important, contribution limits can be designed to channel more of donors' money through the parties, which take a more moderate, long-term view of candidate selection, campaigning and policy.