Campaign Donations Buy Politicians, According To Science

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Political scientists have, for the first time, found concrete evidence that donating money to politicians makes them more likely to listen to what you have to say. This may sound like an obvious , but it’s actually a huge deal. If the research turns out to be true, it could have a huge impact on the way we think about elections and the law that governs them.

Previously, political scientists have struggled to find hard statistical evidence that campaign donations actually affected the way elected officials behave, resorting to increasingly esoteric theories to explain large individual donations and corporate lobbying budgets. The new study’s authors, Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, tried a different tack: they actually ran an experiment, with U.S. Congresspeople and their staff as the subjects.

Kalla and Broockman worked with CREDO Action, a progressive organizing group you may be aware of, to develop a pitch for a meeting with Congressional staff that they sent out to a 191 Congressional offices. The meeting asked for a meeting about a bill CREDO was organizing on, but varied whether the people asking were identified as “local constituents” or “local campaign donors.” There was no lying; the people in question were actually local donors, and agreed to participate. CREDO just switched up whether their pitch for a meeting identified them as a donor.

The professors then compared who got to meet with important people (the member, senior staff), less important people (junior staff, outreach staffer), or no one at all. The evidence was very clear — people who identified themselves as donors in the pitch letter were significantly more likely to get a plum meeting. As you can see from this chart, people who didn’t identify themselves as donors were more likely to get no meeting or meet with the less important staffers in the left columns, whereas donors were much more likely to meet the members themselves or almost-as-important staff on the right:


CREDIT: David Broockman and Josh Kalla

To make sure this didn’t happen by pure chance, Broockman and Kalla calculated the odds that this discrepancy could have popped up by sheer chance. According to several highly rigorous statistical tests, the probability of members of Congress being randomly more likely to meet with donors than non-donors was almost nil. The evidence is very strong, in short, that donations buy access.

What’s not clear from the study is why. As Broockman and Kalla explain in a Q&A with The Monkey Cage, “It could be that congressional officials want to keep individuals happy from whom they can raise money, but it could also be that they expect donors to be more informed, more likely to vote, or something else.” So their research isn’t enough to conclude that Congress is full of Frank Underwood types who care about nothing but their own political survival.

It does, however, raise some very hard questions about campaign finance reform. Citizens United depended in part on the idea that Congresspeople wouldn’t be influenced by indirect (i.e., SuperPAC) corporate donations. But, the authors note, “the meeting request in the Revealed Donor condition that allowed
attendees to secure access to more senior staffers did not state that the attendees had given to the legislator considering the request, merely that the attendees were ‘campaign donors’ in general.” They could have been SuperPAC donors, for example, rather than direct campaign donors. Therefore, indirect donations may very well buy access as well as direct ones.

More fundamentally, Broockman and Kalla’s study calls the role of money in a democracy into question altogether. The basic argument for private campaign donations is that they’re a way that people express their opinions about politics, both to their elected officials and to the nation at large. One political scientist, John Patty, actually took this argument so far as to see Broockman and Kalla’s findings as a good thing for democracy:

We know that people give money to campaigns. We also know or at least strongly believe that people expect something for their money. Putting these together, I will simply say that the conjunction of these makes me feel better, not worse, about our democratic system.

But there’s a power problem here. When you’ve got a country with nigh-unprecedented levels of income inequality, it’s a hell of a lot easier for the wealthy to be lavish campaign donors than the poor. If Broockman and Kalla’s finding is actually evidence that money buys access, then it’s evidence that the concerns of the rich will be far more deeply heard than the concerns of the poor. Historically, as Princeton economist Angus Deaton warns in his recent book The Great Escape, societies that politically privilege the interests of the wealthy historically have experienced some seriously bad consequences, including anemic economic growth and stifled social innovation.

Kalla and Broockman’s study is by no means the last word on the question. As George Mason’s Jennifer Victor notes, the study’s methods aren’t perfect, and its conclusions are at odds with previous, similar experiments. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s a lot more research to be done on just how our campaign system may be twisting our democracy.