Campaign and Political Financing Buys Access, Not Votes
The Democratic Party debates have raised questions on whether Hillary Clinton’s positions on policy issues changed as a consequence of speaking fees and donations to her campaigns. Politicians and media pundits alike remind us that they do not read social science research. The key focus of campaign financing and lobbying is access, not more direct and vulgar efforts to buy votes. So, rather than ask whether Secretary Clinton or other candidates changed their policy positions as a consequence of financial support, we should be looking at whom they communicate with. Who has access to them?
Political influence is subtler than vote buying. Perhaps as the old adage says, everyone has their price. So hundreds of thousands of dollars might well influence some people. In the machine days, many voters cared less about whom they voted for, so they would gladly sell their vote for a turkey at Christmas or simply as a favor for a friend. But in most cases, effective lobbying of politicians is done through shaping a communication process, and money and donations tend to buy access to politicians, which in the long term shapes what they know and what they attend to among competing issues on their agenda.
In the 1950s, major interest group theories of political influence hypothesized direct effects of lobbying. Interest groups were perceived as simply giving money to politicians to win their support on key votes. This was sometimes called a billiard ball model of influence. The business or other stakeholder who lobbied most effectively would win the politician’s support. This proved to be naïve.
Empirical research on lobbying by my late graduate school mentor, Lester Milbrath, and others, such as Anthony Dexter, tended to demonstrate that politicians seldom changed their positions as a consequence of lobbying. Instead, the implications and role of sophisticated lobbying efforts tended to focus on shaping the communication networks of the politicians. Support could get meetings, phone calls, dinners, and today, probably email exchanges with politicians. These provide opportunities to influence the politician’s understanding of the issues, and to identify the issues of most importance to their supporters.
So don’t look simply at whether a politician’s voting record demonstrates the receipt of financial support. That is the wrong place to look. Instead, look at the network of those who advise and explain the issues to them. To accomplish this, lobbyists need to develop a personal relationship with politicians, and money helps a great deal.
We’ve known this for decades but must continually remind ourselves that pundits ignore research.
Raymond A. Bauer, Ithiel de Sola Pool, and Lewis Anthony Dexter (1963), American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade, 1st Edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lester W. Milbrath, (1960), ‘Lobbying as a Communication Process, The Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(1): 32-53.
Lester W. Milbrath (1963), The Washington Lobbyists. Chicago: Rand McNally.