Tuesday, June 23, 2009Nate Silver has built a statistical model over at his website that seeks to explain congressional roll call voting behavior with campaign contributions. The naive model of how this works is that special interests buy off elected officials with funds, either through giving money before hand so that the elected will be beholden to them, or afterward as a reward. Unfortunately for Nate, he doesn't seem to have read the voluminous political science and economics literature on this subject, which has never been able to conclusively demonstrate a strong effect. Brendan Nyhan and John Sides summarize all the reasons why Nate's analysis is faulty. There just isn't any clear evidence that campaign contributions buy political support.
That last statement might seem surprising coming from me, given how much I care about campaign finance reform. Ah, but you see I don't subscribe to the naive model of money = votes. I think there are a number of ways that campaign contributions could have an indirect or constraining effect on the decision-making of congresscritters. Money might just make lobbying more effective. Elected officials might try to neutralize potential opposition by co-opting groups that could fund a rival. Or it could just be the case that, because you need money to get elected in the first place, it tends to be pro-corporate types that win election in the first place (particularly in political primaries). These are all scenarios that would take very sophisticated models to test. I just hope some talented social statistician picks the idea up, because at the moment I really don't have the time.