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How Money Drives US Congressional Elections

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Social scientists have stubbornly held that money and election outcomes are at most weakly linked. New research provides clear evidence to the contrary.

Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen reveal strikingly direct relations between money and major party votes in all U.S. elections for the Senate and House of Representatives from 1980 to 2014. Using a new and comprehensive dataset built from government sources, they find that the relationship between the proportions of money spent by the winning party and votes is close to a straight line.

The researchers look carefully at the possibility that money flows simply reflect candidate popularity, which would imply that voters, not political money, remain in the driver’s seat. They employ a cutting-edge statistical technique to sort out this complicated issue, leading to the conclusion that while money and popularity are sometimes related, the independent effect of money in elections is strong and direct.

Finally, the paper considers the alleged “centrist” leanings of American large corporations. Contrary to many widely-argued views, the researchers reveal that large American corporations were considerably more likely to donate to Tea Party candidates in the 2012 election than wealthy individuals. They reject the claim that the rightward shift in American politics of recent decades has been largely driven more by eccentric entrepreneurs of the kind imagined to populate the Forbes 400 list than mainstream corporations, such as firms on the Fortune 500 list.

Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen’s research offers a new window into the influence of money and corporate spending on American politics. Their work suggests that the failure of social scientists to acknowledge the role of money in the political system may be helping to drive the country into a post-Democratic age.