Voters in the USA are unlikely to be swayed in their decision-making by greater transparency showing who funds political campaigns, according to new research.
Durham University, UK, conducted a survey experiment on US voters to see if funding information influenced how they cast their votes.
The research found that people were unlikely to be influenced by where politicians’ funding had come from once they knew which party they represented.
People were also not swayed by funding information when voting directly on policies, a common form of election in 24 states.
The findings, published in the journal Political Behavior, suggest that more information about who funds candidates would not necessarily limit the influence of money in elections.
Instead, the research recommends that if the USA wants to curb the impact that wealthy organizations or individuals have on political campaigning it should introduce proactive measures of regulating campaign finance. If regulators wish to reduce the influence of money in politics, then they cannot rely solely on telling voters about this money.
Although the study focussed on the USA, lead author Dr. Thomas Robinson said he would not be surprised if transparency about political campaign funding also had a limited effect on voters in other countries, including the UK.
Dr. Robinson, Assistant Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University, UK, said: “Ensuring transparency around donations is often seen as important in campaign finance regulation in the USA, but our research shows that it might not have the impact on voters’ decision making that advocates for this openness might expect.
“Any information voters infer from campaign finance appears to be swamped by the policies or party dynamics of the election.
“Although transparency around political donations is important, this research challenges the notion that voters actively use this information when making political decisions.
“Policymakers should look at other methods as they seek to limit the influence that donors might have on political campaigning. This might include stricter contribution limits and matched-funding schemes.”
Dr. Robinson’s experiment asked 390 subjects to evaluate over 7,000 different hypothetical campaigns in state governor elections and ballot initiative races where private citizens can propose new state laws. Participants included those who identified as Democratic, Republican, and as independents.
Half of the participants were only given information about candidates’ funding. In this case, participants were less likely to choose those with high average donations, a majority of donations from outside of their state, or from a relatively concentrated group of donors.
Voters in this group had a strong dislike to situations where they thought a candidate had been influenced by campaign funders – so-called “political capture”.
However, when the remaining participants were shown details of candidates’ financial support alongside information about their political ideology and policies, the effects of transparent campaign finances were “indistinguishable from zero”.
Among this group, voters were more likely to be influenced in their decision-making if candidates received their funding from outside of the state, regardless of whether they were a Democrat, Republican, or Independent.
All groups surveyed were more positive towards campaigns funded mostly by donations from within their own state.
The difference between the behavior of the two groups shows that while voters can infer useful information from campaign finance information, these signals are crowded out by more salient features of the election, Dr. Robinson said.
Dr. Robinson added that the evidence that voters react strongly against out-of-state donors suggests that regulators might want to pursue policies that emphasize this feature in elections when thinking about curbing the influence of donors.
Forty-six percent of participants identified post-experiment as Democrats, 30 percent as Independent, and 15 percent as Republican. The remaining participants answered other, preferred not to say, or did not answer when asked about their political affiliation.
Dr. Robinson acknowledged that a smaller number of Republican voters included could limit the extent to which the experiment can detect whether Democrats and Republicans behave similarly. Future surveys would look to include more Republican voters.
Dr. Robinson also plans to examine the influence of campaign funding sources on US primary elections, where candidates are drawn from within the same party.
The study was funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.
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