Monthly Archives: February 2016

The great GOP subplot: how donors are setting the agenda

This election cycle has dominated by a populist backlash in the GOP between the Republican elite donor class and the activist base. While many have suggested that immigration lies at the heart of this story, new evidence suggests that at the core of the debate may actually be deep rifts on economic policy. As GOP candidates prepare to take the stage tonight, it remains to be seen whether they will adopt the policies of the wealthy Republican donor class or average Republicans. (Hint: probably the donors.)

While it’s certain that resentment about race and immigration are motivating Trump’s supporters, there is reason to believe that the donor class’s economic agenda is alienating as well. To explore how donors differ from non-donors, Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at University of Massachusetts Amherst and an expert in campaign finance, provided me data from the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which had 32,800 respondents. While the 2008 survey is a bit older, CCES uses questions that come up for roll-call votes, and sadly the last time such questions were available was 2008. CCES is unique in that it has a relatively large sample of large donors, in this case 324 Republican donors who gave more than $1,000 and 459 Democrats who did the same.

The five questions I examined where all roll call vote questions, which ask respondents whether they would vote in favor or against legislation. I examined support for the following policies:

  • Increase Minimum Wage: Increase Minimum Wage from $5.15 to $7.25
  • Health Insurance Program for Children: Fund a $20 billion program to provide health insurance for children in families earning less that $43,000
  • Federal Assistance for Housing Crisis: Federal assistance for homeowners facing foreclosure and large lending institutions at risk of failing
  • Extend NAFTA: Extend the North American Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include Peru and Columbia
  • Bank Bailout: U. S. Government’s $700 Billion Bank Bailout Plan

The first thing that stands out is that when examining donors who gave more than $1,000 compared to non-donors is that they are more economically conservative than non-donors. Donors who gave more than $1,000 were 10 points less likely to support an increased minimum wage (84 percent to 74 percent) and 5 points less likely to support a health insurance program for low-income children (76 percent to 71 percent). They were also more supportive of the bank bailouts (27 percent to 35 percent).


However, these gaps become far larger when we explore the differences between major Republican donors (those giving more than $1,000) and non-donors. For instance, a whopping 63 percent of Republican non-donors support a higher minimum wage, compared to only 32 percent of donors who gave more than $1,000. In addition, 46 percent of Republican non-donors support a funding a program to provide health insurance to poor children, compared with 26 percent of big donors (other research has shown gaps between donors and non-donors on healthcare). Big donors are far more supportive of a NAFTA expansion, while non-donors were split nearly half and half. Finally, non-donors were more likely to support housing assistance, though there were no large differences on bank bailouts. These data suggest that a key divide between GOP voters and donors are on issues related to the economy and redistribution. But elites have systematically failed to address these concerns, preferring instead massive upward redistribution.


Among Democrats the biggest gaps were the NAFTA extension (50 percent of non-donors supported extending NAFTA, compared to 32 percent of donors who gave more than $1,000) and the bank bailouts (34 percent of non-donors in support compared to 48 percent of donors giving more than $1,000).

These findings are in line with other data suggesting that the wealthy have differing priorities from average Americans (the donor class is overwhelmingly more wealthy than average Americans). Political scientist Martin Gilens, whose work has examined in depth opinion differences between the rich and middle class, finds that redistribution is one of the areas with the most disagreement. This lines up with the results of a survey of wealthy respondents by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, who find, “to a much greater extent than the general public—the wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth.” They also find deep gaps on policies related to healthcare (see chart).


Donors have differing preferences from the general population, and their power is only increasing in the wake of Citizens United and other court cases that have made it easier for donors to influence elections. In 2012, Cooperative Congressional Election Study data indicate that 24 percent of Americans gave money, but only 6 percent gave more than $200. On average, members of the general public gave $336. However, FEC data show that among the richest 100 billionaires, the average donation was $74,982. That means that the average donation by one of the super rich is 223 times more than the donation of the general public.


Tonight’s debate may be broadcast nationally, but candidates have so far dedicated themselves to an agenda that is supported by, and benefits, a small sliver of the population. As long as politicians respond to donors, Trump-mania and other populist movements will remain inflamed.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

PC culture isn’t the problem; the far-right is

Over the last week, students protesting racism at Yale and Mizzou (and other campuses) became national news. The backlash has been vociferous, both from the right and from many liberals. To take extreme examples, the Federalist declared that the protests show “that it’s time to burn the universities to the ground,” and RedStatecalled the Mizzou football strikers “Cowardly Liberal Lazy Douchebags.” At its core, the “PC culture” backlash is driven by fear of young people, particularly young women and young people of color, challenging unjust institutions. But the hand-wringing also illustrates a key divide between the left and right: how they treat activists.

One leading liberal writer declared that the campus protests represent something deeper, and more sinister, than anti-racism activism: “American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.” The event that led to the protestors being unfavorably compared to past Marxist governments. The event may be distasteful, but it takes quite an imagination to conjure up a scenario in which it is evidence of creeping Stalinism.

However, there are indeed movements in the United States that consider violence or threat of it a legitimate means to political change, that frequently harass reporters, that silence academics and researchers. The problem is you find them on the right. There are the conservative activists who brandish fully-automatic weapons in public spaces. There are the pro-life activists who harass, both verbally and physically, women obtaining abortions — on a wide scale and in an organized manner. One in five abortion clinics reported “severe violence” in the past year (blockades, clinic invasions, bombing, arson, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, arson threats, and death threats), and other forms of harassment have increased dramatically in the past four years (see chart).


The gun rights movement has muzzled research about gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control. Recently a conservative billionaire sued Mother Jones in an effort to tie up funds and destroy the magazine. The Koch brothers have succeeded in funding hundreds of university departments and have attempted to use their clout todetermine curriculum. Republican governors have used their political power to cut funding to university centers that they find ideologically inconvenient. Though the real police have killed nearly 1,000 people this year, many elite columnists are more concerned about the “PC police” who have merely called for more inclusive universities.

When David Simon called the Mizzou protesters “fascists,” Tressie McMillan Cottomnoted correctly:

“What we saw at that student rally was democracy in action, not fascism. Fascism means something more than a thing one does not like. Fascism means a system of social organization that concentrates power and doesn’t just discourage dissent but organizes the State against it.”

There are many things in the world today, and even in America, that resemble actual fascism or creeping fascism. Student activism is not one of those things.

The liberal reaction to many recent events points to an asymmetry in how party elites treat their activist bases. Consider the Keystone XL protestors, who recently won a key victory in the fight against climate change. Though Jonathan Chait considers climate change “the most dire threat to humanity,” he condemned the Keystone XL fight as a “huge mistake” (and even compared the protestors to Republicans trying to shut down the government). Similarly, though liberals are deeply concerned about rising inequality and stagnant wages, the Fight For $15 was widely denounced by elite liberals as either a “hopeless waste of time” or “worrisome.” This disdain of activism also applies to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has been vociferously criticized for shaking up various Democratic presidential campaigns this year.

The vein connecting each story is the same: Very Serious Liberal Elites care about the environment and black lives and higher wages, certainly, but they want to bring about change without the pesky business of actually involving environmentalists, black people or workers. At its core, this is what the complaints about “p.c. culture” and “campus radicalism” are about: The right will criticize any movement for the advancement of subordinated groups and elite liberals will criticize any movement they can’t control. Liberal elites want to help the oppressed but not listen to them, and certainly not give them a seat at the negotiating table.

This isn’t surprising: The powerful always want to dictate how social change will occur, and they will condemn whatever means those fighting oppression use. Just three years before key civil rights victories:

“In May 1961, of those respondents (63 percent) who had read or heard something about the freedom rides, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) disapproved while only 24 percent approved. When asked if civil rights demonstrations such as ‘sit-ins’ or ‘freedom buses’ would ‘hurt or help’ the civil rights movement, over half the respondents opined that they would hurt.”

The same demonization of #BlackLivesMatter has already occurred: in a recent poll, 59 percent of whites said BLM “distracts attention from real issues” compared to 26 percent of African Americans.

Yet, on the right, activists are praised, even when their tactics are violent, deeply anti-democratic and antithetical to free speech. The reason is simple: Liberal columnists (overwhelmingly white and male) tend to want to be seen as arbiters of sensibility and bastions of Very Serious Thought. Right-wing columnists see themselves as foot soldiers in a movement. Though liberals hasten to criticize the Fight For $15 because it might kill jobs, conservatives cheer on activists who want to hold the national debt hostage (threatening economic collapse) to achieve partisan political goals. Liberal columnists criticize students for demanding a safe space, but conservative columnists are more than happy to support a movement that regularly resorts to violence, even assassination. This is not to say liberals should begin tolerating violence as a means to political progress, merely that they should stop pretending progressive activists are a threat to American democracy, and start criticizing the actually illiberal activity of conservatives. They should further recognize that activists have an important role to play in creating progressive reform, even though their tactics may reflect the fact that they don’t have access to many levers of power.

There are some signs that this may be changing, with recent news suggesting that liberal donors may consider funding Black Lives Matter. That is a welcome change. AsI have noted numerous times, a key asymmetry between the left and right is that on the right, donor networks are far more comfortable working both within and outside of the Republican Party. There will always be a money advantage on the right: consider that Americans For Prosperity, just one arm of the Koch network, has a budget of $150 million in 2015, while the State Innovation Exchange, proclaimed by the media to be an ALEC-killer, is hoping to raise $10 million. However, the right’s organizing advantage is manufactured: the product of a liberal elite that sees activism as a malign force to be crushed and marginalized rather than a movement to be encouraged.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The Medicaid expansion is a question of politics, not economics

Conservative opposition to the Medicaid expansion is killing Americans and costing states money.

Carter Price, a mathematician at RAND Corp. found in a study of Pennsylvania that expanding Medicaid would add $3 billion to state GDP and support 35,000 jobs. In an early study (from 2013) with Christine Eibner, a senior economist at Rand, examining the 14 states that had at that time refused to expand Medicaid, Price and Eibner find that, “we project that fully expanding Medicaid eligibility could reduce mortality by 90,000 lives per year. The mortality reduction would be only 71,000 lives per year if fourteen states opted out of the expansion.” Research by Samuel Dickman andcolleagues at Harvard and CUNY suggests that the failure to expand Medicaid will lead to 7,115 to 17,104 deaths, 712,037 additional people suffering from depression and 240,700 people with catastrophic medical bills. A recent Urban Institute study finds that “Six states would see their uninsured populations reduced by about 40 percent or more if they implemented the Medicaid expansion.” Full expansion would lead to 4.3 million people getting insurance and dramatic reductions in uncompensated care (between $5 billion and $10 billion).

The recent election of Matt Bevin in Kentucky puts one of the most successful Medicaid expansions in peril. Two new studies suggest worrying realities about what caused states to expand Medicaid: that race may play a key factor, and that right-wing activists have significantly hampered reform.

Politics, Not Economics

A vast political science of the Medicaid expansion suggests that politics, not a state’s need, determines whether it takes advantage of the opportunity to expand Medicaid in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.

A study by Charles Barrilleaux and Carlisle Rainey finds that neither the percent of people uninsured nor the percentage of population supporting the expansion had a statistically meaningful impact on a governor’s decision to expand Medicaid. Rather the strongest variables were whether Republicans controlled the statehouse, Obama’s share of the vote in 2012, and the governor’s party allegiance. Other research confirms that political considerations were more important than economic ones.

Political scientist Elizabeth Rigby finds:

“No evidence was found that state resistance was related to economic factors, including overall state resources, the level of fiscal stress, or the new costs states would incur as result of reform.”

In an early study of the Medicaid expansion, political scientists Timothy Callaghan and Lawrence Jacobs find that administrative capacity also strongly predicted adoption of the Medicaid expansion. This is partially because Democratic governments have stronger administrative capacity in general — Republicans tend to weaken the state from the inside. There is also some path dependence at play: States that had increased generosity of programs in the past were more likely to accept the expansion, even those under Republican control. Jacobs and Callaghan also find that richer states were more likely to accept the expansion (which is disappointing, since the poorer states have residents in more dire need of the expansion). The evidence strongly suggests that politics, not economic factors or the rate of the uninsured, determined whether a state would expand Medicaid.


But what political factors were decisive? New research sheds light on the subject.

Study 1: Race, public opinion and Medicaid

A new paper currently under review by University of Chicago professor Colleen Grogan and Ph.D. student Sung-geun Ethan Park finds that racial animus may have played a role in whether a state expanded Medicaid. Grogan and Park find, optimistically, that public support for the Medicaid expansion partially predicts whether Medicaid is expanded. (In 33 states, the government acted in accord with majority will.) They find a stronger role for public will than Barrilleaux and Rainey because they examine support for the Medicaid expansion, rather than the ACA as a whole. However, Grogan and Park find that a key determinant of whether a state ignored the majority’s opinion was the size of the black population in the state. Even with several controls (including party control and strength of competing interest groups) they find:

“the odds of a state adopting the Medicaid expansion in a state with a high proportion of Blacks is significantly lower compared to a state with a low proportion of Blacks all else equal.”

This confirms the hypothesis of many pundits who have noted that the expansion of Medicaid hasn’t occurred in many states with large uninsured black populations who otherwise would have benefited immensely from the law. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there is an incredibly large literature suggesting that policymakers are less responsive to constituents of color than their white constituents.

Study 2: The Koch brothers go to the statehouse

Another new study from Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol and Daniel Lynch examines how interest group lobbying affected passage. They find that:

“GOP-leaning or dominated states have been most likely to embrace the expansion when organized business support outweighs counterpressures from conservative networks.”

Hertel-Fernandez, Skocpol and Lynch find a major divide in conservative organizations, with more mainstream business organizations often supporting the Medicaid Expansion. They cite a lobbyist who tells them that the Chamber of Commerce was almost “leading the charge” for the Medicaid expansion, out of fear that the state would leave money on the table.

On the other hand, strongly ideological groups, like Americans for Prosperity (a Koch group) and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the State Policy Network (an association of far-right policy organizations) universally opposed the Medicaid expansion. What they find is that where the business organizations were stronger, the Medicaid expansion would pass, even in a Republican-dominated state (Michigan). On the other hand, in many cases the more ideologically extreme activists dominated, like in Virginia, which despite having a Democratic governor, did not expand Medicaid because of strong opposition from Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council (even though the expansion would have benefited the state immensely).

After years of researching the Koch organizations for a similar research project, Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol find that they now rival the Republican Party in spending power (see chart). Skocpol writes that, “the Koch network parallels, rivals, and leverages the Republican Party itself, both nationally and in most states.” As the chart below shows, the national GOP committees are now far weaker than they were in the past, while extra-party organizations, particularly those funded by the Kochs, are far better funded.


The result is that in the 2016 election, the Koch network may well spend more than the GOP to influence the election. This helps us understand national politics (for instance the rise of Paul Ryan over John Boehner) but the results are even more disturbing at the state level. The power of the Kochs has led more and more Republican governors to ignore the desires of their constituents in order to serve the Koch agenda. As the Kochs grow even more powerful, it will be difficult for even the very conservative, yet pragmatic politicians to be able to govern (like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, for instance).

Obamacare was designed around the premise that business conservatives would accept the expansion because it was good for business and that Republican governors would act pragmatically. But business conservatives don’t always rule in the Republican Party, and in states where they don’t, governors have sacrificed the health of their citizens and their budgets in pursuit of ideological ends. Future political battles will surely have even higher stakes, as what remains of the tattered safety net in numerous red states is further ravaged by an increasingly extreme right-wing network.

The battle over Medicaid, then, has important lessons for the future. First, we must recognize an asymmetry in American politics. While the Kochs now work both within the Republican Party and outside of it, progressives largely don’t match that trend. That’s because half of the left thinks the Democratic Party is little different from the Republican Party and not worth the time, and the other half thinks any challenge to the Democratic Party is tantamount to treason. But these aren’t helpful ways of thinking about politics.

As I’ve noted before, progressives need to learn from the Kochs and think about how to pull the Democratic Party toward their aims. David Koch initially ran as a libertarian, but then realized that was a silly idea, at least in the American context. Since then, he and his brother have created a powerful non-party infrastructure. Such an infrastructure simply doesn’t exist on the progressive side (and not for lack of trying). This is partially because mainstream Democrats aren’t interested in the fractious debates that occupy the right. But the alternative to the fractured debates is the reality that currently face the left: Without a state and local infrastructure independent of the Democratic Party, they simply can’t mobilize the way the right can.

Second, this research shows that racism may be playing a role in state failing to expand Medicaid. As I’ve shown, there’s evidence that racism affects other important policies, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). At a minimum, Republican governors are prone to ignore the policy preferences of their Bblack constituents.

The final lesson is that progressives can influence change — when they mobilize — and that change can profoundly impact people. It’s all the more disturbing, then, that in their research, Hertel-Fernandez and Skocpol find that:

“the right has treated state-level decisions about building exchanges and Medicaid expansion as major political fights. But the left in general has not recognized that pressing for full health reform implementation in all states presents a huge political opportunity to strengthen citizen faith in government and to further economic and racial equality… Strikingly, SiX itself has not made it a top priority to fight for expanded Medicaid in the 20 holdout states, even though these struggles happening right now.”

The fact that these battles could be won makes this all the more shameful. The Medicaid expansion battle is one of the most glaring signs of both the possibility of progressive reform and the grave consequences for failing to enact it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

How public financing can win back democracy

This week’s elections featured a number of losses for progressive politics, but there was at least one silver lining: They showed that when voters have an opportunity to reject big donor politics, they overwhelmingly will. In both Maine and Seattle, voters approved ballot measures to implement or strengthen public financing, an important reform that can increase the diversity of the donor pool and reduce the power of big money in politics. In Maine, the ballot initiative would boost funds for qualifying candidates and require more disclosure of some political spending. In Seattle, Initiative 122 implements a first of its kind voucher program, which gives each voter $25 vouchers that they can give to their preferred candidate for mayor, city council and city attorney. The initiative also bars contribution from companies or individuals that have large contracts with the city.

Why do these programs matter? A recent study from the Institute for Southern Studies of North Carolina shows that the donor class is overwhelmingly white, far whiter than the general public. Alex Kotch, author of the report, writes, “95 percent of the largest North Carolina donors to key federal races in the 2014-2016 election cycles were white, while non-Hispanic whites make up 65 percent of the state population.” A study of Seattle’s 2013 election suggests that while Seattle is 67 percent non-Hispanic white, the neighborhoods from which more than half of contributions came from were 80 percent white.


There is evidence that public financing would increase the diversity of the donor base. A study of New York City’s 2009 municipal election finds that “donors giving $10 or less live in neighborhoods that are more racially diverse than the city as a whole.” Research suggests that the city’s public matching system (which uses public funds to match small donations) increased the diversity of the city’s donor pool. Otherresearch suggests that the small donor pool tends to be more racially diverse than the large donor pool and that donors as a whole tend to be whiter than the general population.

The donor pool also has differing preferences from the general population. As I’ve noted several times, there is ample evidence that donors are pulling the nation to the right on economic issues, exacerbating rising inequality. Donors of all stripes tend to be more economically conservative as the chart below, made with data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study shows.


A study by Didi Kuo and Nolan McCarty finds, “Donors are also more supportive of low taxes and freer trade. Donors were slightly less supportive of the Affordable Care Act, which overhauled the American health care system to promote universal coverage.” One study by a group of scholars spearheaded by Wesley Joe of the Campaign Finance Institute finds, “Large donors are more likely than small donors to give in the interest of advancing their own narrow economic concerns, as distinct from a more general concern about the economy.” The chart below shows this. Large donors are far more likely to report donating for “material” reasons (advancing their own material interests), while small donors tend to donate for “purposive reasons” (ideological alignment and which candidate they feel would be better for the economy). Their study also finds that small donors are closer to the opinions of non-donors than large donors, with large donors being more economically conservative.

There is evidence that public financing frees politicians from the influence of the donor class. A study by Peter Francia and Paul Herrnson finds that candidates who are publicly financed spend less time raising money than privately funded counterparts. Miller finds that publicly financed candidates spend more time interacting with the general public. That matters, because as Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy has said of fundraising for his campaign, “I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket . . . [The people I’m calling] have fundamentally different problems than other people.”

A Demos study of public financing in Connecticut finds that, “In the short time since public financing has been in place, Connecticut has seen an increase in diversity in the legislature, a more substantive legislative process, and more freedom from big donor and special interests.”

The experience of one former legislator is telling. He tells Demos,

“Before public financing, during the session…there were ‘shakedowns’ where lobbyists and corporate sponsors had events and you as a legislator had to go. That’s no longer a part of the reality.”

There are other benefits of public financing. In his book, “Subsidizing Democracy,” Michael Miller finds, that roll-off (when individuals vote for the most high-profile contests but don’t complete their ballot) appears to be lower when at least one candidate ran with public financing. If public financing does increase turnout, that would have further political benefits for Laws for political equality help increase economic equality. A study by Patrick Flavin finds that, “states with stricter campaign finance laws devote a larger proportion of their annual budget to public welfare spending in general and to cash assistance programs in particular.” Thus, by limiting big money in politics,

Public financing of elections is popular and, given the Supreme Court decisions over the last few decades, one of the few options left to reformers that want to make America live up to its democratic values. The ballot initiatives in Seattle and and Maine provide a glimmer of hope in the often bleak news about the increasing power of the donor class.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

Political science suggests a way to get Republicans behind redistribution

Recently, political scientist Larry Bartels produced a stunning chart showing the dramatically different impacts that Republican and Democratic Presidents have on income distribution:


But how? Two new studies suggest that an incredibly important mechanism by which Democrats and Republicans shift the distribution of income is the tax system.

The first study, from political scientists Christopher Faricy and Christopher Ellis, examines how individuals perceive the same social spending that occurs through direct spending and through a tax expenditure. They find that support for spending is higher when the spending is spent through tax expenditures rather than directly spending the money. The authors also find that when the public is aware of distributive effects of tax benefits, it shifts support. For instance, when the public is made aware of how the retirement income deduction and mortgage interest deduction benefit the rich, that pulls down support for the programs. Of course, these effects were mediated by partisanship: Republicans were more concerned to whether the spending was direct or through the tax system, while Democrats were more sensitive to the distributional effects.


These results suggest why programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit can attract bipartisan support: Conservatives like that it’s a tax credit, while progressives like its redistributive effect. Economists, meanwhile, like that it’s a direct income support for low and moderate income families. And centrist wonks like that it’s tied to work, and that it’s not the minimum wage.

It’s likely that progressives can leverage this effect to get more redistribution: Highlight the injustice of tax cuts for the rich, but press for more expenditures for low-income people.

The second study, by Faricy alone, examines how exactly the partisan politics of the tax code play out. Faricy, who is an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, has just written a new book, “Welfare for the Wealthy,” examining how the policies of different parties affect inequality. In the paper on tax policy, he examines tax credits (overwhelmingly benefitting the poor) and tax deductions (overwhelmingly benefitting the rich) and looks at how the partisan control of the federal government shifts these benefits.

He finds, “The results of the analysis show that an increase in Democratic power at the federal level produces an immediate decrease in the annual level of total tax deductions that disproportionately benefit the rich, and an increase of federal tax credits, which help the working class.” The study finds that, “A switch to a Democratic president produces an immediate increase of over $83 million in the level of tax credits. This is a substantial increase of over 20% of the average yearly value of total tax credits during this study.” Faricy notes that, “Republicans increase tax deductions that target government money to the wealthy while being able to claim that they are providing middle-class tax relief.”

In previous pieces, I’ve examined the evidence that Democrats boost the incomes of working-class and middle-class Americans more than Republicans and also do a far better job of ensuring equitable growth across racial groups. I’ve also explored reasons for this, and particularly reasons that pundits struggle to see these effects. First, Democrats preside over lower unemployment rates and a stronger economy, which strengthens workers’ bargaining power. Second, market conditioning (like regulation) shapes the income distribution. Third, Democrats pursue a more active fiscal and monetary policy, whilst Republicans are more worried about higher inflation.

Finally, there are clear effects from policies that empower labor and policies, like the minimum wage, that directly benefit workers. However, research shows that Democrats (and left parties in general) are increasingly struggle to redistribute income downwards. Some of these reasons are unique to the United States. First, the rise of an increasingly powerful donor class and the increasing importance of money in elections has forced Democrats to draw money from individuals and corporate actors deeply skeptical of a robust role of government in public affairs. In addition, business interest groups have become more mobilized. A new study by political scientists Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol finds that the increasing mobilization of the small business lobby has pulled Democrats to the right on tax policy. They find that in the 2010 fight over the Bush Tax Cuts, Democrats who received donations from the National Federation Independent Business (NFIB) were more likely to support extending the Bush Tax Cuts, even after controlling for ideology and other factors.


In addition, low levels of turnout, particularly among low income people, people of color and youth has allowed both parties to more safely ignore the preferences of large portions of the American electorate. Finally, increasingly globalized markets has hampered government’s’ ability to condition markets through regulation and has made it easier for the wealthy to stash money in tax havens. As Center for Equitable Growth research economist Marshall Steinbaum notes, “capital has gained the upper hand over labor by creating and accessing outside options while eliminating those of its opponents.”

What are the main takeaways? First, the tax system is a ripe mechanism for income redistribution, as Republicans appear to be more willing to accept redistribution through credits. As I’ve noted, a key fear is that by obscuring the government’s role in redistribution, it strengthens Republican narratives of self-reliance. Although this is a clear downside of tax credits, given the Republican opposition to direct spending it may be a necessary evil. The second takeaway, and one that cannot be stated frequently enough, is that the mythology that both parties are indistinguishable is entirely wrong. Structural forces shape both parties, but one party actively reinforces class, racial and gender inequality while the other takes steps, however falteringly, towards a more equitable future. That being said, progressives must make efforts to pull both parties in a more economically liberal direction. That entails reducing the power of money in politics and mobilizing the power of voters and other ordinary Americans.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

How superdonors are gutting America: Here’s the research that helps explain a political system’s rightward lurch

How has the rise of big donors affected our policies? Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s pushing our politics to the right. However, in a recent post over at Vox, political scientist Seth Masket, whose work I deeply respect and have read for years,argues that “what’s not happening here is the superdonors skewing American politics rightward.”

His argument is that so far in the 2016 election, superdonors have tended to be Republican simply because that’s where the interesting contest is — and not as an indication of any larger trend. Here, I have no qualms. However, he links to one of his older posts when he notes that “studies of the ideological leanings of superdonors suggest they come from all across the ideological spectrum.” In that older post, he argues that “the 30 wealthiest donors in the country are actually pretty moderate… Apart from some extremists like George Soros and the Koch brothers, most exist between the party medians.” He concludes that, “The super wealthy are certainly paying a lot of money into the political system these days, but it’s far from clear what they’re getting out of it.”

There’s quite a bit to get into in these statements, but the core fault is to assume that 1) because big donors appear to vary across the ideological spectrum, their net effect on policy is a wash, and 2) because big donors appear moderate and policy has become increasingly extreme, big donors aren’t influencing policy.

I believe that both these arguments are flawed, and that big donors are shifting policy rightward. (I’ve addressed evidence for donor influence over policy before.) Masket cites the work of Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who examine the ideology of the candidates these donors gave to, and by doing so, work backwards to the ideology of donors.

The chart below suggests that the candidates that the 30 richest American contributors give to are more ideologically toward the center of the CF-Scale (a metric developed by Bonica for examining ideology) than small donors, while the donors from the Forbes 400 list and the directors and executives of the Fortune 500 companies skew right. The chart also includes the donations of the top .01 percent of donors. (“In 2012, 62 percent of contribution dollars raised from the top 0.01 percent went to Republicans.”) The donations include anything given between 2004 and 2012.


However, there are limitations to drawing too much inference from these data to the effect of donors on policy. Since the rich tend to be socially liberal, but economically moderate or even conservative, then this will shift policy in important ways. Indeed, of the five most left of the 30 richest (Larry Page, Sergey Brin, George Soros, Anne Cox Chambers and James Simons), only one, George Soros, is known for being deeply concerned with economic inequality. On the other hand, the far right — occupied by Charles Koch and David Koch, as well as the Walton family — tend to pursue an agenda that is very much to the economic right. Further, it’s difficult to know what the scores would look like in historical context. According to DW-Nominate, a similar measure to the CF-Scale, “The most conservative Republicans in the House 25 or 30 years ago would be among the most liberal members now.” So it might be that today’s billionaire donors seem to moderate because the scale has already been shifted to the right. Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker showed in “Winner-Take-All Politics” how increasing reliance on big donors and fundraising has shifted Democrats away from traditional bastions of Democratic support like labor. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which “placed heavy stress on deficit reduction as a key element of economic policy,” was indicative of this trend.

There are other reasons to suspect that donors are shifting policy to the right, at least on economic policy. In a 2010 study, three scholars, Brittany H. Bramlett, James G. Gimpel and Frances E. Lee, examined high-donor neighborhoods. In a previous study, Gimpel and two other political scientists had shown that “the Republican and Democratic donor bases are much more geographically similar than their bases of electoral support.” In their investigation of high-donor neighborhoods with high concentrations of donors have preferences that differ from the rest of the nation.

They write:

“Even after accounting for their higher income and education, Democratic residents of high-donor areas are far more supportive of free trade and less concerned with job losses resulting from foreign competition than is typical for members of their party.”

They note that high-donor neighborhoods also tend to be more cosmopolitan (supportive of gay rights and abortion rights, for instance).

Political scientists Peter Francia, John Green, Paul Herrnson, Lynda Powell and Clyde Wilcox find that Republican and Democratic donors are distinct from their bases, tending to be more ideologically extreme. The differences they find are interesting: Most Democratic donors are “liberal on social issues, reinforcing the stereotype of the ‘limousine liberal,’ whereas most Republican donors are united in their support of business, reinforcing their ‘corporate conservative’ image.” On the Democratic side, however, they find a large “New Democratic” contingent opposed to redistribution. Somewhat surprisingly, “New Democrats rate the Chamber of Commerce more favorably than they do the AFL-CIO.” The authors find that “large percentage of Democratic donors, especially New Democrats, belong to business organizations.” As I’ve shown elsewhere, there is strong reason to believe that the increasing power of these donors, and the increasing marginalization of unions, has pulled American politics to the right.

The chart below comes from an analysis of 2014 CCES (Cooperative Congressional Election Study) data by political scientist Spencer Piston, who tells Salon, “donors are more likely than non-donors to oppose the downward redistribution of wealth.”


Another study of CCES data, by political scientists Nolan McCarty and Didi Kuo, finds “very substantial differences between donors and non-donors across a variety of issues. Not surprisingly, donors are considerably more conservative on economic policy.” Thus, there are systematic and substantial differences between donors and non-donors. As with the rich (and likely because many are rich), the donor class is, on average more conservative on economic issues than the general public. The donor class is also more socially cosmopolitan. This makes it hard to disentangle the effect of the donor class merely by looking at the party of the donors or the ideology of the candidates they donate to. Simply because big donors give to the Democratic Party does not mean they aren’t exacerbating inequality: They may be pulling the party away from a focus on the issues of the working class. And simply because donors pull the Democratic party to the left on social issues does not mean they are not pulling the party to the right on economic issues. The evidence cited here suggests that this is the most accurate description of the net effect of donors.

One key way that the rise of big donors has shifted policy to the right is by strengthening the right, and particularly the rightmost wing of the Republican party. Peter Francia and his colleagues find that Republican donors “are most likely to work in the business sector, although there are divisions among Republicans on social issues.” Indeed, the largest conservative donors, the Kochs, have extensively funded an infrastructure devoted to pulling the party sharply right on economic issues. Further, as political scientist Larry Bartels noted in “Unequal Democracy,” the Republican campaign finance advantage has benefited Republicans in presidential elections. A recent study at the state level finds that Citizens United finds,

“that Citizens United is associated with an increase in Republican election probabilities in state House races of approximately four percentage points overall and ten or more percentage points in several states.”

Obviously, the studies I cite have limitations — we can’t examine granular policy data on the super-rich donors the way we can on the merely rich. Masket is right to caution from sweeping assertions about how money influences policy — there are a lot of dark areas and a lot of grey areas.

But the studies I’ve cited make a strong case that the richest donors likely have preferences that are socially liberal and economically more conservative than the general public. Thus, by empowering the business class and weakening labor, the rise of the donor class has pulled both parties away from economically progressive policy. There is strong reason to believe the rise of major donors has also reduced the influence of low-income and middle-class Americans, women, and people of color.

In a 1936 speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said,

“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering… Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

It’s hard to imagine any president, Democrat or Republican, saying that today. After all, who would fund their re-election?

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The Democratic primary’s ugly truth: Hillary vs. Bernie doesn’t matter until we change our electoral system

Over the last few months, various factions on the left side of the political spectrum have been in heated debate on the comparative merits of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The debate has increasingly gotten rather shrill, not unlike the Obama-versus-Hillary discussion in 2008. Bernie supporters are called “mansplainers” or “brocialists” whilst Hillary supporters are decried as neoliberals or establishment shills.

On the one hand, it’s not helpful to pretend that Bernie and Hillary are the same, nor to pretend they would govern the same. However, far more interesting than litigating their differences would be to analyze the constraints they would face in implementing a progressive agenda — and shift those constraints in a leftward direction.

A recent Ryan Lizza profile of Elizabeth Warren includes an important anecdote that highlights how Clinton would act as President:

They met alone for half an hour, and, according to Warren, Hillary stood up and declared, “Well, I’m convinced. It is our job to stop that awful bill. You help me and I’ll help you.” In the Administration’s closing weeks, Hillary persuaded Bill Clinton not to sign the legislation, effectively vetoing it.

But just a few months later, in 2001, Hillary was a senator from New York, the home of the financial industry, and she voted in favor of a version of the same bill.

That is, if Lizza’s reporting is correct, Hillary in one context effectively vetoed a bill and in another voted in favor of it. This suggests that focusing on Clinton’s motives and personality is far less important than the political constraints she faces.

We can see something similar when examining Bernie Sander’s position on guns. Over at Vox, German Lopez explains it this way:

Sanders’s record isn’t atypical for a Vermont Democrat. Although the state is very liberal, its rural culture makes it unusually moderate on guns. As Anthony Pollina, Sanders’s chief of staff at the time, told the local news outlet Seven Days in 1991, “Bernie’s response is that he doesn’t just represent liberals and progressives. He was sent to Washington to present all of Vermont. It’s not inappropriate for a congressman to support a majority position, particularly on something Vermonters have been very clear about.”

And indeed, as Bernie has run for national office, he has moved more in line with mainstream Democratic stances on guns, as would be expected. In a recent New Yorker profile of Bernie, Margaret Talbot discusses his rather successful time as Mayor of Burlington:

Yet Sanders turned out to be a popular and effective mayor, and more pragmatic than some might have predicted. True, he travelled to Nicaragua, where he met with Daniel Ortega and found a sister city for Burlington. (Vermont reporters dubbed the mayor and his coalition the Sandernistas.) But he also presided over economic development that transformed the city into a hipper, more forward-looking place—one of those small cities that appear on lists of the most livable. And he did so without the kind of wrenching gentrification that he abhorred. His administration devised creative solutions for preserving affordable housing, including a community land trust that enabled low-income residents to buy homes. It became a model for other cities.

A key to his success then, was working within the structure of the office, but also pushing those structures outward. Such calculus is not limited to Democrats. On the other side, history tells us that Nixon signed into law quite a few good bills that he disliked, because he was a conservative president in an overwhelmingly progressive environment. Reagan signed into law the Therapeutic Abortion Act, not because Reagan supported abortion but because he knew his veto would be overrode, and felt that he could weaken the bill.

Now, acknowledging political constraints can often be a cop-out. People tend to see constraints to policies they don’t particularly like, and reject constraints with regards to those that they do. We should hold leaders accountable, and often leaders duck behind non-existent constraints as cover. But if we believe, as many do, that “Hillary changes with the wind,” then it’s a damn good idea to change the wind.

There are two key constraints that policymakers face: First, they need money, and second they need votes. Both of these necessities currently push them towards policies that progressives dislike, but this is not inevitable and with better policies, we can force politicians to be more responsive to average Americans, rather than elites.


The increasing importance of money in elections has been bad not only for Democrats (careful political science suggests money has helped Republicans at both the Presidential, congressional and state level) but for the broader progressive movement. The chart below from political scientist Christopher Witko’s essay in Matt Grossman’s “New Directions in Interest Group Politics” shows how as Labor’s share of contributions to Democrats has increasingly been replaced by Corporate, Trade, Membership and Health, policy-making has grown increasingly conservative.


Though this is merely correlation, there are reasons to believe there is a causal link. First, there is the extensive narrative work of political scientists like Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker, who have documented how the race for money pulled Democrats away from progressive policy. Witko and Adam Newmark find, “the dominance of a state’s campaign finance system by business interests makes policy more favorable toward business.”

There is other evidence to suggest that the increasing reliance on the donor class has pulled both parties away from economically progressive policies, and also hampered efforts towards racial justice.

The chart below is created with Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) 2014. The political scientist who ran the numbers for Salon, Spencer Piston of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, says the data indicate “donors are more likely than non-donors to oppose the downward redistribution of wealth.”


The solution is a robust public financing system. After public financing was put in place in Connecticut, one legislator reported, “Before public financing, during the session…there were ‘shakedowns’ where lobbyists and corporate sponsors had events and you as a legislator had to go. That’s no longer a part of the reality.”

Voter turnout:

Policymakers want to get elected, and re-elected. However, as political scientists Brian Newman and John Griffin note, voters are “almost always more conservative” than nonvoters and “in states where voters are more conservative than nonvoters, Senators tend to be more conservative.”

The chart below shows that there only a few states where voters are more progressive than non-voters. Why does this matter? In my recent report, “Why Voting Matters,” I argue that turnout would lead to more progressive policy. I cite state level, international and historical evidence to bolster the claim that higher turnout leads to better representation and more progressive policy.


The problem with the United States’ low turnout is that it serves to exacerbate the power of the donor class. Political scientists Steven Rosenstone and John Hansennote that, “class difference in mobilization typically aggravate rather than mitigate the effects of class differences in political resources.”

As the chart below, from my last piece, shows, the unregistered population is far more supportive of a $15 minimum wage than the registered population. A politician considering a $15 minimum wage in a United States with 40 percent turnout is far less likely to pursue the policy than a politician in a world with 80 percent turnout.


To bolster turnout, we need robust enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act, automatic voter registration and same-day registration for voters who aren’t registered automatically at the DMV. In addition, we need non-partisan get-out-the-vote mobilization, and an abolition of all restrictions on the voting rights of former felons. We need to restore the VRA to stop raciallycharged voter ID laws and proof of citizenship laws.

The policies above are aimed at only two of many ways to shift the political calculus of politicians. As I’ve noted, increasing representation for women, people of color andworking class Americans is important. In addition, a key mechanism by which power operates is by constraining what policies are even considered. Indeed, the right has exploited the fact that the mainstream media, in its attempt to remain “non-partisan” has allowed the right to subtly shift the field of discussion. The two major lawsuits against Obamacare for instance, went from being insane legal challenges accepted only on the fringes of the right to something that John Roberts is now openly decried as a RINO for rejecting. The primary purpose of the right-wing media is to legitimateRepublican extremism.

Further, the solutions I’ve discussed don’t even begin to discuss the other questions the left needs to answer (what is to be done at the state and local level?) nor the tactics available (sit-ins, organizing, direct action, marches, lawsuits). The Fall issue of Dissent, highlighting debates within the left, begins to answer these questions, and the political journal Democracy’s Fall issue has included a fascinating essay by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Theda Skocpol on how progressives can gain power on the state level.

Further, what differences exist in the policy platforms of Bernie and Hillary (on higher education, banks and healthcare among others) are worth debating, and far more interesting than the relative loudness of their speaking voice. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that many of the purported differences between Obama and Hillary existed on healthcare policy largely collapsed when Obama went to implement his plan.

How to re-energize the left and create independent political power for women, people of color and the working class is still an open question. How to shift the calculus of politicians, to get progressive policies on the agenda and to implement those policies is something progressives need to openly debate. These questions are far more interesting and important than which of two (rather similar) candidates will eventually be stymied by Republican intransigence. Further, who politicians will respond to, the people or the donor class, remains to be seen. The question at hand is not Hillary or Bernie, it’s whether America will be a democracy.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

The evidence is overwhelming: Americans should be automatically registered to vote

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that would automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they interacted with the DMV. This is the second such law, following Oregon’s pioneering law earlier this year. As Liz Kennedy, a counsel at Demos, argues, these laws are crucial because they shift “the burden of voter registration from the individual to the state.” I’ve previously argued that automatic voter registration would dramatically change American politics, and two policies that are set to be major issues in 2016 explain why.

Debt-free college is one of those issues, with support breaking down along registration lines — unsurprising since low-income people, young people and non-white people, who are most likely to support the policies, are least likely to be registered. Peter Moore, an assistant editor at YouGov, an international market research firm, was kind enough to give me data about registration status from a YouGov survey focused on debt-free college. The chart below shows net support (support minus oppose)* for registered voters, non-registered voters and individuals over 65. As the chart shows, older people are most likely to oppose debt-free higher education, and non-registered people support debt-free higher education more than registered people do.


*On the three question examined, YouGov had 5 categories: Favor/Oppose (or Agree/Disagree) Strongly and Favor/Oppose Somewhat. I collapsed into two categories (Favor/Oppose).

Why does this matter? Brian Schaffner, Professor of Political Science at UMass-Amherst tells me that his Cooperative Congressional Election Study data show that the median age of voters in 2012 was 51, while the median age of nonvoters was 42. In another dataset, the American National Election Studies 2012 survey, only 5.8 percent of those between 17-34 donated to a campaign, compared to 20.6 percent of those over the age of 65, suggesting that both voters and donors are older than the population at large. To see how low turnout among youth affects politician’s incentives, I ran a simple analysis of the 2014 Census Bureau turnout data. I calculated the share of the electorate that was between 18-24 and 25-34 in 2014: 5 percent and 11 percent respectively. Then I calculated what the youth share of the vote would be if youth voted at the same rate as individuals older than 65: 13 percent and 17 percent, respectively. In 2014, only 16 percent of voters were under the age of 34, in an equal turnout scenario, 29 percent would have been. The chart below shows the stark change between the projection and reality.


My recent report “Why Voting Matters” brings in an extensive political science literature to show that politicians respond to voters, and that boosting turnout is one way to get more responsive government. It’s clear that in the status quo, politicians have overwhelming incentives to respond to the preferences of older Americans. That could slow progress towards debt-free higher education.

There’s another deep bias in the electorate: this one by class. People in families earning less than $50,000 made up 38 percent of the electorate in 2014 — in an equal turnout scenario, they would have made up 46 percent of the electorate. What might that mean for policy? YouGov was kind enough to share their data on another key question: the $15 dollar minimum wage. Already, organizing by fast-food workers and OUR Walmart has brought the issue to the forefront of the public debate. Could higher turnout push politicians to adopt a higher minimum wage? The data suggest is rather stunning: While registered Americans on net oppose a $15 minimum wage (40 percent in support, 50 percent opposed), unregistered Americans overwhelmingly support a higher minimum wage by a large margin (64 percent in favor and 26 percent opposed).


These results have strong support in the academic literature. For instance, as I noted recently, a study by Ryan Enos, Anthony Fowler and Lynn Vavreck finds that a one standard deviation increase in the propensity to vote (15 percentage point increase in the chances of voting) is correlated with a $6,000 increase in family income and a 4 point decrease in support for a higher minimum wage. Political scientist William Franko finds that high levels of participation inequality (the rich voting more than the poor) leads to lower minimum wage rates and less generous welfare programs. Other recent work by Franko with political scientists Christopher Witko and Nathan Kelly, as well as independent work by James Avery, corroborate this finding. In a study of 14 countries, Vincent A. Mahler, David K. Jesuit and Piotr R. Paradowski find that higher turnout among the poor leads to more poverty reduction via government transfers.


Some commentators argue that those who currently don’t vote are too ignorant to exercise their right — but studies show that when people are encouraged to vote, they are more likely to pay attention to elections. By boosting low-income turnout we could make politicians would have to begin addressing issues that are important for low-income, young and non-white Americans, particularly economic issues. Automatic registration at the DMV could bring millions of new Americans onto the voting rolls, making it easier for them to vote but also making them targets for get-out-the-vote operations. As I’ve noted, there is a deep mobilization gap, with parties more likely to mobilize richer voters. Automatic voter registration could solve that. For my report, Christopher Mann, professor of political science and Director of LSU’s Academy of Applied Politics, told me that it is “unequivocally” true that same-day registration “makes more low-income people targets for GOTV.” The effect of an even more powerful reform like AVR would likely be even stronger. In the status quo, politicians are overwhelmingly responsive to donors. But with higher turnout, catering only to the donor class could threaten their seat. Automatic registration could serve to alleviate the power of the donor class, and is the first step towards bringing America closer to its democratic ideal. It could release a democratic revolution.

This piece originally appeared on Salon

How voter registration could give us debt-free college

As the first Presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act approaches, boosting voter registration and turnout is the best cure for what ails American democracy.

My recent report, Why Voting Matters, shows how voter turnout can dramatically affect policy. Right now, politicians are vying for an electorate that is older, whiter and richer than the general public. They are therefore more likely to ignore the preferences of low-income and non-white people.

To illustrate this, I examined Census data from the 2014 election and examined how higher turnout among people of color and low-income people would have changed the composition of the electorate in 2014.

First I looked at what would happen if low-income people voted at the same rate as the wealthy. In 2014, 28% of voters earned more than $100,000, if low-income people voted at the same rate as the wealthy, only 23% of the electorate would have made more than $100,000. While this seems small, 5% of the electorate is massive—the difference between the non-Hispanic white share of the electorate in 2000 and 2012 was 7 points. People in families earning less than $50,000 made up 38% of the electorate in 2014—in an equal turnout scenario, they would have made up 46% of the electorate. Non-Hispanic whites made up 76.3% of the electorate in 2014, with equal turnout they would have made up 69.9% of voters.

When examining even a smaller elite, the gaps are larger. Take non-Hispanic whites in families with an income greater than $75,000. While this group makes up a bit more than a quarter of people in the United States (27%), they make up more than a third of voters (35%). And while non-white individuals in families earning less than $50,000 make up 16% of individuals in America, they are only 11% of voters.


This can have a dramatic impact on policy. Take an issue that’s heating up as the 2016 election comes up: debt-free college. YouGov recently performed a survey of American attitudes on the subject. Their assistant editor Peter Moore was kind enough to make their data on opinions broken down by registration status available to me.

Non-registered Americans were more likely to say they were “not sure” on the five questions I examined (7% average across the questions for registered, compared with 25% for non-registered), the non-registered Americans who expressed a preference were far more likely to offer the progressive option.* I also compared registered and non-registered to the preferences of high-income families (those with a family income of $80,000, in this poll). As the chart shows, these wealthy individuals were the least likely to support the progressive option.

It’s also hard to deny that these are issues that non-registered individuals don’t care about. Indeed, on all three questions, non-registered Americans were more likely to agree “strongly” with the progressive option, and far less likely to disagree “strongly.” YouGov also asked about whether the state and federal governments spent enough on college. As Demos has extensively documented, the rising cost of college can be directly attributed to the “Great Cost Shift” from state governments paying for college to students.

Both registered and non-registered Americans strongly agree the government should do more, both state and federal, with only 2% of non-registered Americans saying the federal government did “too much” to “help students afford earning a college degree” and just 4% of saying state governments did too much.

Studies of the most elite individuals suggest they would likely oppose debt-free higher education. In a study of the wealthy carried out by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, the authors find that the wealthiest Americans are far more opposed to government spending on higher education.


This is worrying because studies suggest policymakers are more likely to respond to the preferences of donors, and those donors are overwhelmingly incredibly rich.

Cooperative Congressional Election Study data indicate that 24% of Americans gave money in the 2012 election cycle, but only 6 percent gave more than $200. On average, the general public gave $336 and the richest 100 billionaires gave $74,982. That means that the average donation by one of the super rich is 223 times more than the donation of the general public.

Unsurprisingly, given other research, billionaires heavily favored the Republicans: 65 percent of those who made partisan contributions were exclusively or primarily to Republicans. On average, each billionaire in the sample gave $53,227 to a Republican candidate and $21,411 to Democrats.

This chart uses uses data from Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and one of the lead researchers on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (a massive survey that includes 50,000 respondents) as well as two studies by Benjamin Page to compare donations from the general public, the 1% and the richest 100 billionaires.

Voter registration is an important part of the problem, and elsewhere I’ve outlined other sources (for example, mobilization bias). To bolster registration, the U.S. needs three reforms. First, automatic voter registration, which shifts the burden of registration from individuals to governments should be implemented where possible. Second, stategovernments need to pursue robust enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act. Third, all states should pass Same-Day Registration for those who slip through these two programs.

Bolstering registration will make it far more easy to mobilize voters during both the early voting period and on election day. This National Voter Registration Day, voting is more necessary than ever to combat the increasing power of money in politics.

* I examined net preferences by subtracting the share of individuals opposed to the statement from the share in support. On the first three questions examined, YouGov had five categories: Favor/Oppose Strongly and Favor/Oppose Somewhat. I collapsed into two categories (Favor/Oppose).

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The true cost of Voter ID: Everything you need to know about the monumental cost of voter suppression

In my recent report, “Why Voting Matters,” I show the dramatic differences in opinion between voters and nonvoters, and argue that more voter turnout would lead to more progressive policies. One of the most dramatic gaps in opinion is between white voters and non-white nonvoters (shown below). As 2016 approaches, the question of how to mobilize the political power of people of color is increasingly being discussed with the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter. Though it’s clear that voter turnout will not be enough to fully realize political equality, it can have a dramatic influence on policy.


In a study released last year, political scientist Jon Rogowski and Sophie Schuit of the Brennan Center for Justice find that members of Congress representing districts covered by the preclearance provision (which was struck down by the Roberts court when it gutted the Voting Rights Act) were more supportive of civil rights legislation. The chart below (on the left) shows that as the black population increased, a legislator in a district protected by the Voting Rights Act became more liberal on civil rights, while one in a non-covered district became more conservative. The chart on the right shows that in more competitive districts, representatives covered by the VRA were more progressive on civil rights than in non-covered districts. As the authors write, “By guaranteeing the voting rights of Black constituents, Section 5 created the incentives for elected officials to better represent Black interests.”


Other research on the impact of voting in the South comes to similar conclusions. For instance, economist Suresh Naidu finds that poll taxes and literacy tests lead to a decline in the teacher-child ratio at black schools of 10 to 23 percent (no effect on white schools). Economists Elizabeth Cascio and Ebonya Washington find that the boost in black turnout following the Voting Rights Act boosted state transfers to localities with higher black populations. Economist Ferran Elias finds that the court orders shifting cities from at-large elections to single districts (thereby guaranteeing black representation on the city council) boosted public good expenditures and tax collection, as well as the share of black public workers. He also finds that it boosted the value of houses owned by black citizens. This research all suggests that voter protections, many of them under assault by the court, have been integral to equitable representation.

A fascinating working paper from Brazil sheds more light on the importance of voting — and making voting as easy as possible. The paper examined a re-registration program in Brazil that affected 1,186 municipalities. The program pulled down registration rates by 10 points and turnout by 5 percentage points in the affected districts. The authors find that the effect was dramatic: “The newly elected mayors responded to this change by reducing public expenditure in areas that disproportionately benefit poor and uneducated voters (education and health).” Although the paper is still in the working-paper stage, it finds support from other similar studies: One from Princeton economist Thomas Fujiwara finds that the adoption of new electronic voting technology in Brazil, which boosted turnout among less-educated citizens, led to more government spending on healthcare. The result was increased prenatal visits, and therefore a reduction in low-weight births among less-educated women.

An increasingly large international literature suggests that districts or municipalities with high turnout are favored by politicians. In the U.S., Paul Martin finds that counties with higher turnout receive more funding from the federal government. In another study, he and Michele P. Claibourn find that “districts that vote at lower rates have less impact on their representatives’ policy positions.” A study in Japan that examined variations in turnout caused by rainfall, which reduces turnout, finds that municipalities with higher turnout received larger intergovernmental transfers.

This is not to say that voter turnout would entirely solve our entrenched political biases. The donor class, for instance, is overwhelmingly white, and politicians respond disproportionately to the preferences of donors. But they also responddisproportionately to voters. And voters are disproportionately white. I recently noted that non-Hispanic whites made up 76.3 percent of the electorate in 2014, while with equal turnout they would have made up 69.9 percent of voters, a difference of 6.4 points. For comparison, the change in the white share of the electorate dropped from 82.5 percent in the 1996 midterm, a 6.2 point difference. To put it another way, equalizing turnout would have a result equivalent to nearly two decades of demographic change.


Because turnout is so important, eliminating barriers to access is all the more urgent. This presidential election cycle, the first without the full protection of the VRA, is seeing a deeply racialized attack on voting rights. As I’ve shown, white Americans are far more likely to stereotype black Americans in states with voter ID laws. Academics have made a persuasive case the voter ID laws are “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” A recent study of early voting finds that “percentage of a county identifying as Black has a significantly negative association with early voting site density.”

The solution to our voting crisis is universal same-day registration and robust enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act, combined with automatic voter registration where the technological capability exists. In addition, Congress mustrestore the vital preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. Finally, nonpartisan GOTV operations and voter awareness drives can boost turnout. Bolstering the political power for people of color is a long-term project that involves removing many of the distortionary barriers to participation in our political system. A key step is boosting voter turnout. As the nation becomes diverse, its electorate must become more diverse as well. More inclusive turnout will lead to policies that better represent the needs of all Americans.

This piece originally appeared on Salon