Pay­ing politi­cians to run for of­fice

Why elec­tions would not be more fair if politi­cians got your tax dol­lars

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Joe Al­banese Joe Al­banese is a re­search fel­low at the Cen­ter for Com­pet­i­tive Pol­i­tics in Alexan­dria, Va.

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 re­elec­tion, 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.

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.

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