Money buys votes and two UC Berkeley political science doctoral students Matt Jarvis and Justin Buchler say they can prove it.
The electoral system, however, puts reformers in a Catch-22 bind, they added in a presentation Saturday morning, part of a two-day workshop on the UC Berkeley campus on Money and Influence in Politics.
“Right now, journalists and reformers are happy because political scientists have found a way to make it look like money is buying votes,” Jarvis explained. “But that’s where the good news for reformers ends. If you increase how competitive the (congressional races) are, more legislators will be in danger of losing their seats, making them more susceptible to be affected by money. If you try to increase competition, you might also increase corruption. You can’t make districts more competitive without making them more corrupt, and you can’t make them less corrupt without increasing competition. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”
Jarvis and Buchler’s study was one of several “new research” presentations at the workshop, put on by the Citizens’ Research Foundation and held at the Institute for Governmental Studies on the UC Berkeley campus. Following each presentation, the scholarly audience of around 30 bandied about questions, comments and suggestions to the presenters, some of whom were making a first public showing of research undertaken for their dissertations.
Jarvis and Buchler felt their work would be of such interest to journalists and reformers because, in contrast to political scientists’ usual frustrating and counter-intuitive claims that money does not buy votes, the pair believes they have found empirical evidence that it does.
Hearkening back to their earlier statements about increased and decreased competition, Jarvis and Buchler decided that money was worth different amounts to different people. The pair focused on how non-freshman congressional incumbents who won highly contested races voted on a pro-National Rifle Association amendment to a bill.
“We end up with a coefficient of .083, and what that means is if the gun lobby contributes $1,000 there is a shift of about 8 percent for guns. If the PAC (Political Action Committee) maxes out its contribution, we have about an 80 percent shift,” explains Buchler. “This is one of the strongest results we’ve seen money have on votes. It only occurs in competitive districts where (the legislators) need money, which is exactly what our theory predicted.”
Jarvis and Buchler estimate that from their small sample of 35 legislators, 15-20 votes were changed because of money.
“Absolute power might corrupt absolutely, but money only corrupts certain people,” Jarvis quipped.
Many of the other presentations involved analyses of “soft money,” funds evading campaign contribution laws by landing in designated “non-federal” accounts of the national political parties.
Cal doctoral student Ray La Raja traced state party soft money spending in the 1992, ’94, ’96 and ’98 elections. La Raja’s hard evidence backs up much anecdotal testimony of how soft money is spent.
“National parties are using the soft money to target the media in key states, which is what people have been saying all along,” said La Raja. “National parties would seem to be undermining campaign contribution laws if these are being used for target ads. (Soft money) is transferred to contested states and is almost used like hard money. But, soft money is paying for some party-building. For Republicans, it supports party overhead. These are party-building acts.”
La Raja also found that, not surprisingly, more soft money is transferred to states without strict anti-soft money laws, which could still leave loopholes for soft money even if new federal laws are passed.
In other presentations, Peter Francia of the University of Maryland contended that AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s aggressive contribution tactics have won more labor victories from a Republican Congress than previous president Lane Kirkland could elicit from a Democratically controlled one, and Stanford’s Sean Theriault claimed that competitive elections could induce votes for campaign finance reform.
“Those who just barely survived their last election voted (for the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill) at a 71.2 percent vote,” said Theriault. “Instead, if you won without opposition, the percent dropped to 13.1. We see Democratic constituents gave those who voted for Shays-Meehan a bump of over 11 percent (in their next campaigns). So why is it that when you ask people what are the 10 most important things for government to deal with, campaign finance reform isn’t even recognized?”