What do people "buy" with the money they give to politicians?

During the investigation of the Clinton-Gore campaign finance scandal, one major contributor admitted to a congressional committee that he was not registered to vote. Why? Because he believed that his money was worth much more than a single vote. By contributing money to the Clinton-Gore campaign he was casting his "vote." But what did he expect in return for his money? Did he want a specific policy enacted? What do campaign contributions "buy"? Do they buy votes? Something else?

Let's begin with what we know for sure: everyone agrees money buys "access." Access is the ability to meet or talk with an elected official in order to make your case. It is much easier to get a politician to answer your phone calls or let you in their office door if you are a campaign contributor. Some regard unequal access as a big problem. Politicians are more likely to be influenced by those who they listen to, not by those with whom they have no direct contact. Others are not so concerned and believe that there are so many opposing groups making their cases that no one is likely to dominate.

But we are more interested in whether money buys something bigger -- votes. The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Journalists and scholars disagree about the magnitude of the impact of campaign contributions on votes. Journalists tend to make vote buying seem commonplace. They find anecdotal cases where a campaign contribution appears to have influenced a politician's vote. Academics on the other hand take a more systematic approach. They look not for anecdotes, but valid generalizations. What is the scope of the problem? What generalizations can we make? Even if we find irrefutable evidence that one person's vote is bought, we may not be able to generalize to politicians as a whole. Using this more systematic approach, academics tend to find less evidence for vote buying. They do not, however, find that it never occurs; only that it is not a very good generalization. Vote buying occurs, but on a very limited scale.

Why is the political scientist's answer so different from the journalist's? Political scientists differ in two main ways from journalists in how they investigate these questions. First, political scientists look at all the instances, not just a few that seem suspect. They are interested in making a generalization. Second, they are more careful in drawing conclusions about whether votes were bought, i.e., whether money bought a vote or whether there was some other reasonable explanation. This part takes a little more explanation.

The Difficulty of "Proving" a Vote Was Bought

The terms correlation and causation are very confusing to most people and are mistakenly thought to be synonymous. A correlation is when two events happen together. For example, there is a correlation if a politician received a campaign contribution AND voted in line with the interests of the contributor. Most people would instantly conclude that the contribution influenced the politician's vote. But maybe not. A correlation is not the same as causation. In fact, there are 5 equally plausible explanations, or causes, for this correlation. These are outlined below.

1. Money ==> Vote

In this case, money does indeed influence a vote. This is the scenario that people correctly fear. But there are other possibilities as well. . . .

2. Vote <== Money

In this case, a politician votes with the interest of an organization and is rewarded by that group for their vote. (This is not the same as buying a vote. Why? The money did not precede the vote, so it could not have caused the vote.)

3. Money <==> Vote

This is a case where scenarios 1 and 2 happen simultaneously. In this case maybe someone was leaning toward a vote, but the possibility of money tipped the scales. Alternatively, they voted based on other factors but were later rewarded with money. In either case this scenario is different from number 1. It is not a clear case of vote buying.

4. Money x Vote

A fourth possibility is that a correlation between a contribution and a vote have nothing to do with each other. It is only coincidence that the two are correlated. For instance, hospital visits and death are highly correlated, but we should not assume that the hospital visit caused the death.

5. Money <== Ideology ==> Vote

This last possibility is called a spurious correlation. Two things appear to be correlated, but are both caused by a 3rd factor. In our example, ideology will influence both how a person votes, and whether they are rewarded by particular interest groups. So, money and votes occur together, but money does not buy the vote.

This last explanation is especially important. A famous article in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed to find a strong correlation between campaign contributions and votes for the interests of tobacco companies. When you look at their data, you see that the largest tobacco contributions were received by Republicans and candidates from tobacco-producing states. These people were also the most likely to vote in favor of tobacco interests. However, the study did not account for the fact that the correlation could be spurious and that both factors could be caused by ideology. In fact, they didn't even look at ideology as a potential explanation. When a political scientist reanalyzed their findings, he found a much smaller amount of "vote buying." In fact, ideology, constituency opinion, and the opinions of other political leaders like congressional leaders and the president all better explained the correlation than did interest group contributions.

Cause for Optimism

Whatever the evidence, most people still expect money to influence politicians' votes. If money didn't buy votes, then why else would these groups give this money? Why "waste" so much money to get nothing? However, when you think about it for a while, there are good reasons to be more optimistic about politicians.

First, any given campaign contribution constitutes only a small proportion of the total money candidates receive. Individuals can give only $1,000 per candidate per campaign, and PACs can give only $5,000. But these sums are small potatoes in a half million dollar House campaign and a 3.5 million dollar Senate campaign (these are averages). So why should we expect a contribution which constitutes a small portion of total campaign income, to be so powerful?

Second, politicians often receive money from opponents on both sides of an issue. For example, many politicians receive money from both business and labor. So if they vote for business on one issue, we should not assume the business group's money bought a vote. In what sense then can you say a vote was bought if both sides contributed? You could just as easily say a vote was NOT bought.

Third, politicians are not hapless lackeys. They have their own political beliefs and agenda -- that's what drove them to work so hard to attain elected office in the first place. They didn't work hard to get to Congress to let others dictate their votes.

Fourth, public opinion is very important in many public policy debates. When the public is involved and interested, it is very difficult for a politician to defy the public. The drive to please the voters is often great. When the public is not aroused by an issue, they are most likely to vote their conscience, not vote to collect a few thousand dollars in contributions.

In sum, votes are sometimes influenced by contributions at journalists have shown. But the influence of money on votes is likely much less than most Americans estimate. The influence of money is likely to be greatest at particular times.

Here are a few examples:

Alternatives to the Current Campaign Finance System

Despite the somewhat optimistic findings of social scientists, many are still rightly concerned about the influence of money in campaigns. Many citizens don't want to worry about the possibility of undue influence. One of the main proposals to "fix" this problem is to expand the system of public financing of campaigns.

We currently have a system of public financing for presidential candidates. The federal government "matches" individual private contributions less than $250.. This system makes the playing field quite even for both candidates (unless they forego public financing and G.W. Bush has done in 2000). Presidential candidates are interested in matching private donations under $250; therefore, they are not interested in interest group money and they receive very little.

Many other countries, and even some states within the US, go even further. They finance the campaigns of all candidates for their legislatures. Would we be better off with a public financing system? It would certainly decrease both the appearance and reality of interest group influence. The downside, however, is that you have to pay for it. Public funding costs money. Ultimately, only you can decide if such as system is needed for other elected offices in the United States, or if some other reforms will do the trick. You can use some of the following links to help you decide.

Contributing Author, Jeff Fox, Ph.D., Catawba College

Additional Resouces


Groups advocating various campaign finance reforms

Resources on campaign finance reform

Different Approaches to Campaign Finance