Money in politics is a murky subject. The line between an official campaign and a Super PAC is blurry at best, and the "revolving door" between lobbies, bureaucrats and elected officials seems to grow wider with every election. Voters are overwhelmingly opposed to corporate influence in elections and decisions like Citizens United, and yet, there is a good deal of evidence that such big spending really does work.
Take state elections. A website called Follow The Money has produced a number of fascinating graphics that chart the role of money in recent state-level contests. The site is run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, and provides a nice companion to Open Secrets, which focuses more on federal races. Now, most of the 2012 data aren’t available yet, but many of the maps and charts go back as far as 1996, and paint a pretty clear picture of how significant big money can be.
One measure, called PULSE, charts campaign contributions in state elections using a couple of box-and-whisker plots—one for winners, one for losers. The 2008 results from my home state of Minnesota are above, showing all state offices that were up for reelection. Each dot is an individual candidate, with red for GOP, blue for Democrats, and green for third parties (the yellow centers indicate incumbents). As you can see, the winners as a group spent much more money trying to, well, win. This group is also full of outliers who spent a lot more than the winners’ average, while the losers’ outliers tend to go in the opposite direction.
In Minnesota at least, money seems to determine a lot. But what’s interesting is that these are actually really good numbers compared to other states. In California, which has much less competitive races in terms of campaign contributions, the charts looks very different:
Winners here spent hundreds of thousands more, rather than just tens of thousands, and in 2008, only one incumbent lost. And unlike in Minnesota, both winners and losers skewed much more to the higher numbers in their outliers, even though winners spent much more on average.
What future elections will look like is hard to say, but it probably depends on what campaign finance law looks like. The continued rise of Super PACs will undoubtedly have a big impact across the country, but local elections are still generally cleaner than federal. As Follow the Money notes, public financing has a big impact on these numbers. In Arizona, which introduced public financing in 2000, the median gap between winners and losers dropped by a factor of more than three, compared with the 1996 cycle.
Right now, only a handful of states and local governments have similar measures—including Maine, Connecticut, and Portland, Oregon—but more could be on the way. Reform advocates like MoveOn.org and Demos are seeking to establish public financing in New York State, while West Virginia has already launched a similar program for this year’s contest. Nationally, the Fair Elections Now Act, a bill introduced last year into the House and Senate, would allow members of Congress to take public campaign cash.
And in Montana, where no public financing system exists, legislators have nevertheless challenged the Citizens United decision by barring corporate donations. Earlier this year, after the state’s high court struck down a challenge to the new law, the Supreme Court suspended the decision, possibly pending further consideration. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the law’s best chance is another high court showdown, where reformers could have another crack at the landmark 2010 decision.
How all of that shakes out exactly is anyone’s guess, though odds are the Roberts Court will be hard to sway. That being said, with such a large number of people opposed to the decision, local and state election law may become a greater battleground. In places like Arizona and Portland, 2012 doesn’t have to be the year of the Super PAC.