Posts Tagged ‘Special Interests’

Is it a Problem that the Vast Majority of our Electoral System is Financed by Men?

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A significant amount of journalistic attention is devoted to examining how campaign contributions influence who we elect to the U.S. Congress.  Such concern over the potential for “special interests” to exert inordinate amounts of power on our elected officials is clear; it is  antithetical to the notion of the “common interest” that underlies the foundation of our democracy (previously discussed here).   However, while it is often the case that special interests are presumed to be narrow interests  (i.e. “big oil,” unions, corporations, etc.), there is relatively less attention paid to how our campaign finance system affects groups that are too broad or cross-cutting to be called “special interest,” but may nevertheless be significantly impacted by the current campaign finance system. Specifically, the question I address here is whether it is possible that the campaign finance system is contributing to the gender disparity in Congress.  Is it a problem that the vast majority of our electoral system is financed by men?

Why the Gap?  How does the campaign finance system contribute to the problem?

Those that argue overt discrimination against women is a thing of the past note that women perform just as well as men in general elections. For example, no one was shocked this past April when Robin Kelly was elected in a special election to fill the seat previously held by Jesse Jackson Jr. in Illinois.  However it is also true that women generally have to raise more money to perform as well as men at the polls, while at the same time women perceive fundraising to be more difficult than men.  But why?

I suggest two reasons.  The first is the undisputed gender gap in resources: men make up a larger percentage of the work force and earn a higher income on average.  They therefore have more resources at their disposal to contribute to campaigns than women do.  The second, less obvious reason has to do with a particular FEC regulation governing the rules of “Separate Segregated Funds”  (SSFs), which comprise the vast majority of PACs that contribute to candidates and include corporations, membership organizations, unions, etc.  The regulation specifies that the only members of a company or organization that can be limitlessly asked to donate to the PAC are its executives, stockholders, and notably – their spouses.

While the 2012 Fortune 500 “boasted” a record number female CEOs, the grand total came to 18, just 3.6%.  The reality is that the majority of executives and stockholders are male, that in essence, are able to make contributions on their own accord as well as on behalf of their spouses. Taken to its furthest logical extent, the result is that a greater number of men enjoy de facto doubled contribution limits.

Gender of Contributor and Preferences Toward Male/Female Candidates

Of course for any of this to matter to gender fundraising disparity, it must be the case that women prefer female candidates and men prefer male candidates. To see whether there was any evidence for this, I took a sample that included 2975 individuals who made contributions to a subset of eight pairs of freshman candidates (one male and one female in each pair) within the critical first 100 days of the start of their respective campaigns.[1]

The table below presents the results of a quick analysis. I classified contributors that do not have employers and that list occupations such as “homemaker,” “self-employed,” “mother,” and “volunteer” as “working inside the home.”  Unsurprisingly, males constitute a higher proportion of overall contributors. When I exclude contributors (both male and female) that work inside the home, the average contribution for females declines substantially while the average contribution for males increases just slightly.  It also results in a decrease in the percentage of female contributors to 26%.  It is interesting to note that this percentage roughly corresponds to the percentage of women in Congress. (While this does imply causal relationship, it is nevertheless a fun number…not unlike Romney getting 47% of the popular vote in 2012).   Lastly, it is evident that females seem to prefer female candidates and males seem to prefer male candidates.

Does the Discrepancy Matter?

Arguably, the gender imbalance in Congress is only relevant insofar as it has an independent effect on legislative output that cannot be explained by other factors, such as partisanship.  In other words, if gender has no impact on an elected official’s behavior, then an imbalance, however disproportionate, may be functionally irrelevant.  Yet studies show female legislators devote more time and energy to what are informally referred to as “women’s issues,” including healthcare, children and families, women’s rights, gun control, and others.  Stylistically, women demonstrate more cooperative legislative strategies and collaborative approaches, while men tend to prefer more competitive, hierarchical tactics.  Thus it is reasonable to posit that a change in the proportion of women in Congress would have an impact on the nature and type of legislative output.

Particularly in a political time in which fundraising continues to grow in importance, it is important to be aware of how seemingly non-discriminatory formal institutions, such as the campaign finance system, may nevertheless result in discriminatory outcomes.

Contribution Statistics by Gender

Recipient Candidate

Male

Female

Total

Proportion

Average

Contributor

Male

1165 (58%)

870 (42%)

2035

68%

$899

Female

448(47%)

492 (53%)

490

32%

$920

Excluding Contributors Working Inside  Home

Recipient Candidate

Male

Female

Total

Proportion

Average

Contributor

Male

1150 (57%)

867 (42%)

2017

74%

$911

Female

336 (46%)

382 (54%)

718

26%

$799

Gender and Work Status of Contributor and Gender and Party of Recipient Candidate

Total

Mean

Work Inside

Average

Work Outside

Average

Males

To Male Democrats

801

$869

15

$582

786

$875

To Female Democrats

598

$857

3

$1525

595

$852

To Male Republicans

364

$1091

0

$0

364

$1094

To Female  Republicans

272

$901

0

$0

272

$901

Females

To Male Democrats

316

$1028

70

$1493

246

$874

To Female Democrats

379

$791

82

$972

297

$727

To Male Republicans

132

$1219

42

$1591

90

$942

To Female  Republicans

113

$795

28

$1019

85

$692


[1] The eight pairs, or sixteen total candidates, consist of individuals competing for Congressional office for the first time.  All chosen candidates won their elections in 2008 and subsequently were sworn-in during the 111th Congress.  The pairs were chosen based on the similarity of their ideology, district qualities, and partisan orientation.

 

By Erinn Larkin, Compliance Director, PACs and Parties

Hulu, YouTube, and Campaign Finance Laws

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A recent article in the New York Times titled “Technology Leaders Endorse Effort to Overhaul Campaign Finance,” reports that a group technology leaders and venture capitalists have come together to endorse an overhaul of the State of New York’s campaign finance system.   The group is urging Governor Cuomo to pass public financing legislation modeled after the current program in NYC .  The system provides matching funds to candidates that attract small dollar donations.  The authors argue elections are “dominated by a small group of affluent campaign donors, professional influence-peddlers and deep-pocketed vested special interests” and “more often than not, big money gets its way.”

The rhetorical denouncement of “special interests” is popular in both parties, and the reason is clear: it is antithetical to the notion of the “common interest” that underlies the foundation of our democracy.   Walter Lippmann once said that in American politics, the “public interest” can be likened to an all-powerful, “god-like” conception.   In this case, the authors seek to strengthen the public interest by implementing a system they argue will reduce undue influence of big business, enhance participation, and strengthen democracy.

The reality is that the average person will never contribute to a political campaign, even if their funds are matched.  The percent of Americans that do contribute is quite small.  While the intent among reformers is to balance some of the disparities that exist between the wealthy and less wealthy in society, what they will in fact be doing is balancing the disparity within one small part of society: the universe of political contributors.  A matching system would grant “enhanced representation” to a specific group, in this case, politically-motivated yet resource-poor contributors.

The example they note is NYC system, and yet in the most recent mayoral election of 2009, NYC witnessed the lowest voter turnout its had since the 1960’s.  Still, there may be inherent value in decreasing the wealth and power disparity within the universe of contributors by empowering small dollar donors.  What effect will this have?  One key characteristic that distinguishes high dollar donors from low dollar donors (in both parties) is that low dollar contributors are more ideological and partisan.  Thus it is not unreasonable to question whether empowering the universe of small donors could lead to higher levels of polarization.  Polarization of course, is one of the main reasons why public confidence in government among Americans is so low, as the authors note.

All this is not to suggest that reform should be abandoned, or that small dollar contributors should be marginalized; quite the opposite.   It is a call to abandon rhetoric that depicts money in politics as inherently evil, and public financing solutions as inherently good.  Lippmann was on to something when he referred to the public interest as god-like, because like a god, the public interest is not an empirical entity.  It is impossible to know what an unbiased system would look.  The group noted  here, for example, includes venture capitalists and CEOs of companies including Foursquare, Gilt, Etsy, Meetup, Twitter, Tumblr, and others. Ironically if they are successful, they will have provided one more data point to their key complaint, which is that big money tends to get its way.

In order to avoid these inevitable contradictions, reformers should focus their efforts on procedure, and on actual effects that reform will have on how campaigns operate.  They need to clearly link how rule X leads to outcome Y and has Z detrimental implications.  Without concrete examples, no amount of decrying “the evil of money in politics,” even after a substantial change in the dynamics of money in politics like Citizens United, is going to incite public support.

Links:

(1) http://www.brookings.edu/research/books/1999/new-liberalism

(2) http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/L/bo6683614.html