What Does Academic Research Tell Us ABout the Role of Money in American Politics?

May 1, 2003

Jeffrey Milyo, Ph.D.

Proponents of campaign finance reform argue that money plays a central and nefarious role in American politics. Even the most modestly informed citizen is familiar with the argument that campaign spending determines electoral outcomes, and that this forces candidates to sell out to moneyed interests, which in turn alienates the general public. Consequently, even though more stringent campaign finance regulations may impinge on certain freedoms, so the familiar argument goes, such laws are necessary to restore a healthy democracy. Opponents of reform take issue with this last point, but rarely challenge the premises that underlie the reformers case. However, each element of this argument — that money drives electoral outcomes, contributions are like bribes, voters are alienated by the role of money in politics and campaign finance reforms will improve the workings of democracy — are either contradicted or unsubstantiated by decades of scholarly research.

What Does Academic Research Tell Us ABout the Role of Money in American Politics?