“What could I have done if I had the money?”

As a political consultant before becoming a political scientist, Michael Miller heard that question often from candidates who lost campaigns. He decided to move that question from the rhetorical to the empirical: what did political candidates do differently when they were freed from some or all of the obligations of fundraising?

Most of the news about money in politics is dismal. The sheer amount of spending – especially outside spending through SuperPACs and non-profits – has exploded. New members of the House of Representatives are advised to spend four hours a day calling potential donors. But behind all that, a set of promising experiments has been unfolding at state and local levels, in the form of partial or full public financing of elections. With some of these programs now in their second decade, Miller rigorously tested their effects on the culture of politics. Do different people run? Are candidates able to spend less time fundraising? Do they reach out to different people? He answered these questions in his recent book, Subsidizing Democracy: How Public Funding Changes Elections and how it can Work in the Future.

What did political candidates do differently when they were freed from some or all of the obligations of fundraising?

Miller found that in Arizona, Connecticut, and Maine, where half or more candidates choose to run with voluntary full public funding that covers all campaign costs, the candidates spent five to six hours more per week engaging with voters than in states without public funding. They devoted time they would otherwise have spent fundraising to meeting citizens, hearing their concerns, and building relationships. In contrast, in Hawaii, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, which provide only partial public campaign funding, candidates “still behave exactly like traditionally funded candidates; they’re spending five to seven hours per week fundraising,” Miller explained at this week’s event sponsored by New America’s Political Reform program. That’s a lot less time spent talking to voters than in states with fully funded programs.

As a beneficiary of Arizona’s fully funded campaign finance program and a member of the Arizona House of Representatives from 2009-2013, Dr. Matt Heinz corroborated Miller’s study from his own experience. To qualify for public funding, he had to acquire 210 individual $5 donations. This required him to go door to door, asking for funds from the same people he asked for votes. Heinz’s experience running a traditionally funded campaign for a United States Congress seat in 2012 was starkly different: chained to the phone in a windowless room, he spent seemingly endless hours trying to convince the voice on the other end to write his campaign big checks. These interactions were far less satisfying than the more than two thousand individual conversations with voters he was able to have while running for the Arizona House.

While Michael Malbin, Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute, agreed with many of Miller’s findings, he noted that by pooling state-by-state data into the three categories of ‘fully publicly funded,’ ‘partially publicly funded,’ and ‘traditionally funded,’ Miller lost some of the nuances of his study. For instance, although there was more voter interaction in the three fully funded states overall, in Maine, even candidates running traditionally funded campaigns interacted with voters more than candidates running publicly funded campaigns in Arizona. Given this discrepancy in the data, Malbin maintained that Miller has not identified the entirety of the mechanism for increasing candidate-voter interactions. He also argued that while the flawed partial-funding systems in Hawaii and Wisconsin did not change the amount of time candidates spent reaching out to voters, Minnesota’s system, which includes a tax credit for small donations, did. Furthermore, candidates in Minnesota’s partial funding program, as well as in New York City’s small-donor matching system, relied much more on donations from people closer to average income, which may have been another mechanism for increased voter outreach.

Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Law and a former Justice Department official, agreed that public financing programs that encourage small donations improve candidate-voter relations, but challenged one of the main premises of full public funding programs such as Arizona’s. “Conventional reformers suggest that there’s too much money in politics,” he told the audience. “They’re wrong. The real problem is that money comes from too few people.” While up to 64 percent of eligible voters actually vote, only about 10 percent contribute to campaigns, and less than 0.5 percent contribute the bulk of campaign money.

“Conventional reformers suggest that there’s too much money in politics,” he told the audience. “They’re wrong. The real problem is that money comes from too few people.”

Overton suggested that public finance programs should instead encourage more people from more diverse backgrounds to contribute financially to campaigns. He noted that in New York state elections, candidates only receive 7 percent of their campaign money from contributions under $200, but in New York City, which offers a 6-to-1 matching program for the first $175 dollars of small donations, candidates receive more than 60 percent of their campaign money from contributions under $200.  He pointed to that policy as a successful way both expanding the donor pool and increasing candidate-voter interactions.

Miller also found other interesting ways that public funding affected both voters and candidates. In states with full public funding, voter behavior changed. While overall voter turnout was not affected, voter roll-off – when citizens who have already gone to vote stop marking their ballots for lower level public offices – decreased. That is, more people voted in the publicly funded races for state legislature and other offices. Miller suggested the increased interaction with voters gave them the information needed to fill out their ballots beyond higher-profile races.

Miller showed, and Heinz affirmed from his experience, that full public funding in Arizona made it more likely that candidates would emerge to challenge incumbents. They might not win – incumbents often enjoy the advantage in private fundraising opportunities and party position – but even a modest challenge forces the incumbent to engage in debate and consider constituents’ concerns. Heinz also recalled that the political parties were able to use public financing as a recruitment tool, because potential candidates did not have to start by figuring out how to raise money. As a result, Miller argued, public financing “created good candidates.”

Despite the generalized despair about money in politics, participants were optimistic that public financing of campaigns was likely to expand to more states, providing a valuable alternative in the market for political power, and that research about the actual effects, positive and negative, from existing programs will help improve the next generation of reform.

About the Author

Hana Passen
Hana Passen is the special assistant to the president at the New America Foundation. Her responsibilities include research and analysis on topics of interest to Anne-Marie Slaughter, primarily in the field of domestic family policy.
Mark Schmitt
Mark Schmitt is director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation. A prominent writer on politics and public policy, with experience in government, philanthropy and journalism, Schmitt is also a columnist for The New Republic and a leading voice on political reform, budget and tax policy, and social policy.