Opinion: Money in Politics

— Alice Gaston, Advocates for The Other America —

Already in the early stages of this year’s election cycle, fundraising and the size of one’s war chest have been crucial in determining the outcomes of elections. In a recent story on campaign finance on NPR, analysis of the race for Ohio’s newly drawn ninth district between incumbent candidate Marcy Kaptur (D) and Joe Wurzelbacher—also known as Joe the Plumber from the 2008 Presidential election—notes that three out of every four dollars raised by the candidates to date comes from outside of Ohio. NPR found a similar trend in last week’s primary race where Richard Mourdock (R-IN) unseated long-time Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) with the aid of Tea Party backed funders.

When did American’s decide races outside of their home district were worth financing?

A new article in the latest issue of American Politics Research argues the trend of outside financing for local elections is linked to the increased polarization of the American electorate. As more voters identifying themselves as strongly partisan, they are similarly funding ideological candidates regardless of location. Issues such as abortion, gay marriage, foreign policy, and the national debt are driving voters to back candidates outside of their home districts. La Raja and White further argue the ease of online donations has further exacerbated this trend.

What does this mean for American politics and low-income peoples in particular? First, as Marcy Kaptur stated in the NPR interview, “It’s turned into an endless campaign, where you’re having to raise all these very egregious amounts of money just to be able to compete.” And when the money is coming from outside of one’s home district, it’s likely to skew a politician’s work once in office.

Additionally, the un-competitiveness of most Congressional districts means primaries are becoming more important than general elections. Given that most primaries are closed—meaning only those registered with a specific party may vote—smaller portions of the electorate are sending more ideological strident individuals to represent them in Congress. This further intensifies ideological divides in government, leading to the show-downs that have become common place and the grand-bargains that allowed government to function a thing of the past.

All in all, this trend of continuous fundraising to remain competitive seems to enhance the partisanship in Washington. It takes politicians away from the actual job of legislating and creates impenetrable ideological impasses between the parties, making legislation to help the 15% of Americans that fall below the poverty line less and less of a priority.