Coming To A Political Campaign Near You: Outside Money, And Lots Of It

Originally published on May 16, 2012 10:29 am

It's happening in several congressional races, in states like Nebraska, Montana and Ohio — millions of dollars from out-of-state donors and outside groups are fueling candidates' war chests.

Last week in Indiana, outside money helped Richard Mourdock beat out six-term incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar in the GOP primary.

On Wednesday, WCPN's David C. Barnett reports for NPR's Morning Edition about the congressional race in Ohio's 9th District. The Republican challenger there is Joe Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," the guy who rose to fame in 2008 by tangling with then-candidate Barack Obama. The incumbent Democrat is Marcy Kaptur, and $3 out of every $4 in the race has come from donors who don't live in Ohio's 9th.

When did so many Americans decide races outside their backyards were important enough to back financially?

NPR's science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam stopped by Morning Edition with recent social science research that could provide some answers.

"Across the United States, money is pouring into congressional races that comes from outside the congressional district, and there's another thing that's happening at the same time, which is a lot of the money is increasingly coming from donors who identify themselves as strongly partisan," Vedantam explains.

He points to an article in the latest issue of American Politics Research by Ray La Raja and David Wiltse.

In 1972, 40 percent of donors to congressional and presidential races identified themselves as liberals or conservatives. Today, the number is about 60 percent, says La Raja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Along with that partisan spike comes a similar trend in political contributions: Donors are using their money to weigh in on ideological national issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and foreign policy, instead of focusing solely on local issues.

"What La Raja's research seems to suggest is that Washington's polarization came first, and starting in about 2002, there has been this really growing polarization among the voters, which is translating into more partisan donors in politics," Vedantam says.

And, why is 2002 so important to La Raja's findings? He says that's when political campaigns really began to focus on online fundraising.

"Now, you're sitting in front of your computer, you get an email that says, 'Look what those people are doing to us in Washington.' You have your credit card ready — the people who are motivated by that are passionate about the issues, they're ideological. They send money," La Raja says.

Campaign fundraising has become a "self-reinforcing system," Vedantam says, where politicians appeal to those partisan contributors who are likely to give money to a particular cause or campaign, and the cycle encourages itself again and again over each political year.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. So as we just heard from David C. Barnett, three out of every four dollars in the race between Joe Wurzelbacher and Marcy Kaptur come from donors who don't live in the state of Ohio. So why are so many Americans engaged in backing other people's candidates? NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins us regularly to talk about interesting social science research he finds. And he's brought in some research findings about people who are giving to election campaigns.

And, Shankar, what's the research telling you?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: So, David, what the research is suggesting is that what's happening in the 9th district of Ohio is a microcosm of what's happening nationally. Across the United States, money is pouring into congressional races that comes from outside the congressional district.

And there's another thing that's happening at the same time, which is a lot of the money is increasingly coming from donors who identify themselves as strongly partisan. Now, it used to be that most of the money in election campaigns for both congressional races and the presidential race came from the political center.

I spoke with this political scientist. His name is Ray La Raja. He's at the University of Massachusetts. And he has some new research in this journal called American Politics Research where he finds that something really important has changed. Here he is.

RAY LA RAJA: If there was an ideological candidates, like Pat Robertson or George McGovern, we saw a surge in ideological donors. But then, in about 2002, all of the sudden we start seeing many, many more donors getting ideological - very ideological.

VEDANTAM: So what he finds is that back in 1972, about 40 percent of voters identified themselves as liberals or conservatives, or very liberal or very conservative. Today, it is 60 percent and climbing. And this is true for congressional races and it's true for presidential race is. And what it suggests is that congressional races used to be about local issues, so you cared about whether your representative was going to bring money back to help build bridges and schools.

But increasingly, people care about races that are happening far away, because that person is now going to weigh in on national issues: the budget, foreign policy, the size of government, abortion, guns.

GREENE: National issues, of course, are debated in Washington. There is a feeling that Washington is becoming more polarized. Could that explain these changes you're seeing? I mean more outside donors, more ideological donors.

VEDANTAM: So, La Raja thinks the two things are definitely linked. So there's been a chicken and egg problem in political science for a long time, which is, is the increased polarization that we see in Washington the results of an increased polarization among voters. Or did the polarization in Washington come first and, as a result, voters have become polarized?

And what La Raja's research seems to suggest is that Washington's polarization came first. And starting in about 2002, there is been this really growing, you know, polarization among the voters which is translating into more partisan donors in politics.

GREENE: But it is a possibility that you just raised, that increasingly partisan donors could also be contributing to Washington becoming a more polarized place.

VEDANTAM: For sure. For sure, so it's a self-reinforcing system. So if I'm an enterprising politician and I see that partisan donors are giving all this money to politics, I would want to press those buttons to make sure that more of them give money to my campaign. So if you're a liberal sitting in California, and you hear that conservatives are giving all this money to Joe The Plumber in Ohio's Ninth District, you're tempted to send Marcy Kaptur a check.

And you may not even know Marcy Kaptur is, or even where the Ninth District of Ohio is located. But you care about the race because now it's become about national issues.

GREENE: And the candidates have to act more ideological if they want to get more support from ideological donors.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: Well, La Raja brought this year 2002. It sounds like it's a real defining moment. What's so important about the year?

VEDANTAM: Well, there are lots of explanations about why it is we see the sudden rise in partisan donors starting in 2002. But Joe Wurzelbacher actually gave us a clue about what might be going on. He told us that a lot of the money he's raising, he's raising online. He's using the exchange that he had with Barack Obama back in 2008 to tell conservatives, hey look, I fight the good fight, you need to help me.

And what La Raja thinks is that the Internet and fundraising on the Internet may be responsible for some of the changes that we're seeing. Here he is again.

RAJA: Now, you're sitting in front of your computer. You get an email that says: Look what those people are doing to us in Washington. You have your credit card ready. The people who are motivated by that are passionate about the issues, their ideological, they send money.

GREENE: And, of course, that's a trend that we've definitely seen, political campaigns increasingly using the Internet more and more for fundraising.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, David.

GREENE: NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @nprgreene, @nprinskeep and @morningedition.

Shankar, thanks for stopping by.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, David.

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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