The implementation and expansion of public funding programs around the US over the past decade raised the possibility of major changes in the financing of campaigns at the state and local level. Advocates claimed that these programs increased electoral competition, reduced the influence of campaign contributors and lobbyists, and changed the distribution of political power. While there was evidence of a modest increase in competitiveness, primarily through reducing the number of incumbents who ran uncontested, the longer-term pattern has shown no significant change in incumbency reelection rates, margins of victory, or legislature demographics. Claims of major policy change have also been overstated. The Supreme Court’s rejection of spending triggers for additional grant awards in Arizona Free Enterprise PAC v. Bennett makes full public funding programs less attractive, since publicly funded candidates are less able to keep pace with high-spending opponents or independent expenditures. Future research should focus on how these programs affect the way that candidates and legislators engage with the public.
About the author
Kenneth R. Mayer is Professor of Political Science and Affiliate Faculty of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research has focused on public funding at the state level, election administration, and American politics. He has been active as an expert witness in campaign finance, redistricting, and voter-ID litigation in state and federal courts.
According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, three quarters of nations provide some sort of public funding, in the form of direct or indirect support to parties, or free television time. Since its origins in the 1950s “it has been adopted by almost all the stable democracies and became the dominate pattern among the new and emerging democracies in all regions of the world” (Mendilow 2012, p. 1).
Studies of campaign expenditures have the same difficulty, in that incumbents who are in electoral trouble tend to spend more than those with no real opposition, leading to the simple (but inaccurate) conclusion that there is an inverse relationship between spending and votes. Accurate inferences require controlling for the expected competitiveness of the campaign; see Jacobson (1978). In congressional elections, researchers can control for baseline competitiveness by examining candidate experience, prior service in elected office, or partisan balance in the constituency. For state legislative elections, this information is much harder to find.
An additional empirical difficulty is distinguishing the effects of clean elections from other changes in electoral systems that occurred at (or around) the same time. Term limits took effect in Maine in 1996 and Arizona in 2000 (the years when legislators were first termed out). Arizona changed its redistricting process in 2000, creating an independent commission to redraw state and congressional district lines after the 2000 Census. One of the requirements for the new Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was to create competitive districts, and data support the conclusion that it did (McDonald 2006).
Data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Federal Election Commission, Presidential Fund Income Tax Check-Off Status1992-2012, September 2012. 2012 figures are through July, though that does not affect the percentage of filers who participate. http://www.fec.gov/press/bkgnd/pres_cf/PresidentialFundStatus_September2012.pdf.
In 2012, the presidential primary spending limit was $45.6 million, and the general limit was $91.2 million (a total of $136.8 million). Over the campaign, Romney spent an estimated $467 million; Obama spent $726 million even though he did not face any primary challenge. Obama spent $196 million in October 2012, nearly 50% more than he would have been permitted to spend in all of 2012 if he had taken public funds.
Once a privately funded candidate exceeded specified spending thresholds, raised money in excess of these thresholds, or benefitted from any independent expenditures, publicly funded opponents became eligible for additional grants to offset this private spending.
Data from Citizens Clean Elections Commission, http://www.azcleanelections.gov/electiondata/search.aspx.
2008 and 2010 figures from State Elections Enforcement Commission (2011, p. 21); 2012 figures from author’s calculations.
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