Good donors. Bad vests.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Catch of the Day: 'Bad' Political Money Is Good

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

A Catch to John Sides at the Monkey Cage for highlighting new research on public financing. While it reduces the advantage incumbents enjoy and produces more competitive elections, public financing also increases partisan polarization. At least, we have new evidence that public financing has those consequences.

Sides explains why:

Much of the debate over campaign finance is based on distinctions between “good” donors and “bad” donors. Good donors are taxpayers, in a public financing system. Or, in a privately funded system, good donors are ordinary citizens, sometimes called “small donors.” Bad donors are political party organizations, wealthy people, political action committees, and interest groups.

The problem is that if you want to reduce polarization, this way of thinking about donors gets things exactly backward.  Small donors are a polarizing influence, as Adam Bonica has shown. Meanwhile, wealthy people tend to be a moderating influence. The same is true of many political action committees and interest groups.  The same is true of political party organizations, as Brian Schaffner and Ray La Raja argue in this post.

I’ll add two things.

One, this is probably irrelevant to those who, as Sides says, divide sources of money into “good” and “bad” piles. For them (and this includes most reformers), the other consequences for reform are beside the point: Good is good, and bad is bad, end of story. While I disagree with this (I like all donation sources!), it has internal consistency.

Two, the findings are further reason for a “floors, not ceilings, plus disclosure” approach to reform. Public financing is good at encouraging strong candidates to run and enabling them to run at least minimally competitive campaigns, even in districts where the other party has enough of an advantage that the out party isn’t willing to invest resources.

But “bad” resources are helpful, too. Political parties do good things, from providing clear signals to voters to allowing party members who live in the wrong place to still be represented in the legislature.

Representation of organized interests is also important. As James Madison said in Federalist 10, repressing them is a “cure” worse than the problems they cause.

Beyond that, more money is better: Candidates spend money to generate information for voters, who generally don’t have enough of it, at least beyond the full saturation we get in presidential elections. Sure, some of it is slanted and at times outright false, but quite a lot of it is accurate reporting of candidates' positions on public policy. If parties and private interests are willing to fund that information, that’s a good thing.

But, yes, campaign-finance policy will be better when it can accurately account for the consequences. So: Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net