The American Political Science Association Task Force report on political polarization,Negotiating Agreement in Politics (2013) includes a discussion of the role of campaign spending. The co-authors of this analysis, Michael Barber and Nolan McCarty, write that the role is small. But they suggest that there is more work to be done, raising the question of whether some spur to polarization might come from the rising importance to candidates of ideologically motivated individual donors. Before turning to that question, it is worth noting what else the co-authors have to say about the impact of money. They refer to the research that shows the “weak connection” between contributions and roll call votes, and between campaign spending and election outcomes. One would not know this from standard media coverage of the issue. This is not to say, of course, that money in politics does not present important public policy issues. But one is reminded once again that much of what passes for a telling critique of campaign finance in America is weakly or inconsistently supported by social science research.
McCarty has written on this topic on other occasions in similarly guarded and balanced terms. In a critique of the policy response to the financial crisis, Political Bubbles: Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy(2013), he and his co-authors described campaign finance reform as a “small ball” answer to income inequality and political polarization. Political spending counts for something, without a doubt, but it does not count as much as is suggested by the fevered debate on the subject. For example, McCarty et al. write about the 2008 vote on TARP. Did they find that contributions influenced the vote? Yes, possibly, but only at the margins. Ideology seems to routinely trump the political influence that money can buy.
As McCarty and Barber acknowledge, the connection between individual, ideologically driven donations is for the moment largely speculative. But the connection, if found, may not be the one supposed. In an earlier book written with Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America: The Dance of Inequality and Unequal Riches (2006) McCarty and his co-authors suggested that polarization may be driving political spending behavior, not the other way around. In any event, they concluded then, as McCarty and Barber do now in this new report, that there is “no simple causal link leading from the demand for more cash to polarization.”