Can we get independent voters to donate?

A year ago, reforming the role played by money in politics was a hugely unlikely issue for debate in the 2016 presidential campaign. With a solid 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court backing an unlimited flow of corporate dollars into super-PACs and the bona fides of several candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) — resting on their ability to raise enormous quantities of money, who would have thought that Democratic and Republican voters would be drawn to anti-big money candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Donald Trump (R). What a year it has been!

{mosads}As a result, new proposals to change federal campaign finance regulations, overturning the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, and even a new constitutional amendment, are increasingly a part of the national discussion. Many reformers aim to decrease the power of mega-donors by increasing the participation of small donors. Surely, by now we have all heard how many people have given Sanders’s campaign just $27.

However, the push to increase small donors and amplify their power through public matching programs — such as those in New York City and Los Angeles — runs counter to other political trends. The rising number of voters who are unwilling to declare a party affiliation — even when promised anonymity by pollsters — could frustrate any attempt to expand the number of small donations. So-called “independent voters” are growing quickly; recently approaching 40 percent of voters according to the Pew Research Center, more than the number claiming to be loyal Democrats or Republicans.

Independent voters have long intrigued researchers and pundits, deemed by some to be the least informed among us and by others as our most noble and honorable brethren. But according to a new book published by Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, “Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction,” both of these views of independent voters are wrong.

Instead, Klar and Krupnikov argue that in an increasingly polarized world of politics, voters cling to independence to avoid making a bad impression on others. Independent voters are not hedging their partisan bets or holding their noses at the messy party fights in Washington; rather, they want to avoid being judged by friends and neighbors as uncouth.

As interesting as this is what Klar and Krupnikov discover about the political consequences of this social aversion to party affiliations. In a series of experiments, Klar and Krupnikov show that these types of independent voters are less likely to attend partisan rallies, wear a campaign button or donate to a party. Independence is more than just an unwillingness to declare an allegiance; it leads to severely less political participation.

Most political reforms aimed to increase small donations from voters do not take this into account. It seems unreasonable to expect even the most inviting public campaign matching program to convince independent voters to give if they are worried it will cast them in an ugly light with those around them.

One solution to this problem comes from another new book written by an unlikely author. Richard Painter, who served as associate counsel to President George W. Bush, has just published “Taxation Only with Representation: The Conservative Conscience and Campaign Finance Reform.” Painter — now on the faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School — has much to say about why conservatives, not a typical constituency for reform, need to consider how big money is threatening their traditional beliefs and interests.

On small donors, Painter makes an interesting claim about the discouraging effect of campaign finance regulations, which require anyone who donates more than $200 to publicly disclose the donation to the Federal Election Commission. By changing the disclosure floor to donations greater than $1,000, Painter writes that more voters would be “permitted to keep their donations private from neighbors, employers, and work colleagues.” By promising more anonymity, this change in regulation would induce wary independent voters to engage in supporting party candidates without the negative consequence of judgmental peers.

It is unclear whether this novel proposal has any future in campaign finance reform debates or whether conservatives will hear Painter’s call for action. Nevertheless, anchoring this policy’s design in a foundation of what social science tells us about how people feel and act about politics is a step in the right direction. Future campaign finance reform, like any sound public policy proposal, will do well to follow what the evidence tells us, and adjust policies accordingly.

Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and is the the author of the forthcoming “Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy” (Praeger, Spring 2016).

Tags Bernie Sanders Campaign finance Donald Trump Hillary Clinton independents public matching small donors
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