When politicians face a problem, their first instinct is often to spend your tax dollars. Those who see our politics itself as a problem are no exception. Figures like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and former Vice President Joe Biden say politicians should receive public funds to run their campaigns.
Their theory is that campaign subsidies will reduce the influence of major donors. Advocates of tax-financed campaigns claim that this helps electoral challengers, which leads to more “contested and competitive” elections. At a time when incumbents often have no rivals for re-election, this argument sounds appealing.
But what does “competitive” mean in this case? Simply getting more candidates on the ballot seems like a step in that direction. But if they don’t win, are elections really more competitive? Losing by a somewhat smaller margin hardly seems worth the cost in taxpayer dollars.
A new report by the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) asks a key question: would tax-funded campaigns help challengers beat incumbents more often? The study examines state legislators running for re-election in two groups of states. One group consists of the five states with some form of tax-financed campaigns (Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, and Minnesota). The other group is the remaining 45 states.
CCP’s report shows incumbents win at sky-high rates no matter what state group they’re in. From the 2010 to 2016 election cycles, 89 percent of incumbents won in tax-financing states, and 91 percent won in the others. The gap between these states is statistically insignificant — there is basically no difference between them. This is like when a poll says candidate A will beat candidate B, but the survey is within the margin of error; meaning B could be tied with or even beating A. The situation is the same here. We cannot tell the difference between re-election rates in tax-financing states and other states.
Many potential reasons could explain why incumbents win across the board, like high name recognition, party support, and other advantages of holding elected office. But CCP’s study shows no evidence that public financing counters those strengths. States that fork over taxpayer money to candidates don’t put incumbents at higher risk than if candidates only raised private, voluntary contributions from their supporters.
This is just another failure of tax-financing to live up to its promises. In multiple areas, the Center for Competitive Politics has found no evidence of this policy’s supposed benefits. Tax-financing does not increase voter turnout, increase legislator gender or occupational diversity, or reduce influence from lobbyists and so-called “special interests.”
Without proven benefits, the costs of tax-financing are even harder to stomach. Paying politicians to run for office is foolish — presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once compared it to American colonists in 1776 asking King George III to finance their revolution. It also forces taxpayers to subsidize candidates that they disagree with, even bigoted or corrupt candidates who would otherwise repel donors. A traditional fundraising system lets Americans exercise their First Amendment rights by supporting whomever they want — or nobody at all.
Some activists complain that politicians spend too much time dialing for dollars, but they underestimate the benefits of fundraising. It strengthens campaign strategy by helping politicians to identify their strongest supporters, who can then be tapped to volunteer, get out the vote, and advocate for the candidate during the campaign. It also allows them to build relationships with future constituents and groups with new ideas. Fundraising is not just important for winning elections, but successfully governing.
Our new report shows that Americans should be skeptical of public financing and its claimed benefits. Any “reform” that subsidizes politicians should be seen for what it is: a program that spends your tax dollars on politics.
• Joe Albanese is a research fellow at the Center for Competitive Politics in Alexandria, Va.
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