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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Government professor Robert Boatright examines the effects of campaign finance reform—who gives, who gets and what difference it makes in how U.S. elections are funded.

Meet the researchers: A lifelong interest in politics

Interview with Professor Robert Boatright, Fall 2006
In a recent conversation, summarized below, government professor Robert Boatright discusses his research on the impact of campaign finance reform law on federal campaign financing in the United States and Canada.

What drew you to the study of government?

I've always been interested in politics. As a kid during the 1976 presidential election, I remember being very excited about the election, even though the candidate my family was working for didn't make it past the primaries.

Nonetheless, when I entered college I planned to major in history. But I took a number of political science courses and enjoyed them and decided to be a government major instead. During my junior year I interned in Washington, D.C. with the congressional representative from the area where I grew up. Later I won a fellowship to study political science at the graduate school level.

Your current research examines the impact of the U.S. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) that went into effect on Nov. 6, 2002. Can you give a brief summary of that legislation?

I focused on two main components of the BCRA, known originally as McCain-Feingold. First, the BCRA prohibits political parties from raising soft money contributions, contributions given to political parties for party-building activities, not to directly support candidates. Soft money was different from standard political contributions-called "hard" money-in that there was no limit on how much somebody could give. But, in effect, soft money contributions were used for virtually any purpose by the parties.

The second major provision of the law is that it sharply restricts issue advocacy advertising by labor unions or corporations. Prior to the law (which went into effect with the 2004 elections), issue advocacy ads had become virtually indistinguishable from those run by the candidates themselves. Corporations or labor unions could finance ads pointing out "bad" votes a particular congressional representative had made. At the end of the ad, the viewer would be urged to call and voice disagreement with his or her representative's voting record. It was clear that the ad sponsor wanted you to vote against the representative, even though the ad didn't actually say 'vote against so and so.'

Ads funded using labor union or corporation money are now prohibited during the 30 days preceding a primary election or 60 days preceding a general election. You can't mention a name of a candidate in an ad being run during this period unless you're using hard money-money regulated by the Federal Election Commission. So the influence of interest groups via radio and television is severely restricted by this law.

When did you begin researching the impact of the BCRA?

I began this project in 2001 in collaboration with three other political science colleagues. Since the law's passage in late 2002, we've been tracking how the major American interest groups have been adapting to restrictions imposed by the BCRA on financial contributions, especially as it pertains to the 2004 federal election.

A lot of what we're trying to do is disentangle changes that have resulted from the law from changes resulting from other factors. The 2004 election was different from previous elections in a lot of different ways, including changes in laws, the politics of the Bush administration, fallout from September 11, etc.

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What conclusions have you reached on the effects of the campaign law on the 2004 election?

In 2000, most of the political activity was on television. Groups like Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO on the left, and the Chamber of Commerce and other business-oriented groups on the right, spent a lot of time doing targeted television ads in different battleground states. In some instances they spent several million dollars on campaign advertising.

In 2004, post BCRA, most of these groups shifted their efforts to voter mobilization and voter identification efforts. A classic example is America Coming Together, a 527 group that did voter mobilization in about 12 different states-places like Ohio or Pennsylvania. They identified neighborhoods where there were likely to be Democratic voters, and sent people door to door repeatedly to talk to them. Sometimes often they'd bring hand-held PDAs so they could keep a record of the issues concerning voters.

Lists of supporters became much more important. Both the Democratic and Republican parties started doing what's called micro-targeting, taking lists of known party supporters and merging these with consumer lists or lists from other groups. They hoped this information would show who would be likely to support a particular candidate.

527 organizations were the big loophole in campaign finance law. These are groups that rely primarily on individual donations and were formed mostly on the left to do the sorts of things that labor unions, advocacy groups, other groups were prohibited from doing.

So these were big changes in election strategy. But what we don't know is whether these changes were solely a consequence of BCRA. The way American politics have gone under the Bush administration has complicated our efforts to figure out what effect the law has had. In 2004 it was very evident which states candidates needed to secure to win the election. Given the polarization that's happened during the Bush presidency, it seemed unlikely that there were a lot of persuadable voters. The name of the game was not persuading tentative Bush voters to vote for Kerry or vice-versa. Rather, it was finding people who were Democrats or Republicans and making sure that they turned out to vote.

Do you think the law has accomplished its purpose?

The intentions of the folks who wrote the law were to limit corruption within the political parties. Before BCRA, multi-million dollar soft money contributions could be solicited from wealthy individuals, corporations or labor unions. Despite the fact that this money was not going directly to candidates, candidates were certainly involved in the raising of this money. These types of contributions are now not raised by politicians and arguably politicians themselves are running more ethical campaigns.

However, the fact that large contributions of this nature, such as the donations that George Soros gave in 2004, are now going instead to outside organizations like 527 groups, means that nobody can really be held accountable for what is done with this money. While the notion of quid pro quid with politicians is reduced somewhat, there's still not a whole lot of accountability.

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Can you talk more about the 527 groups?

Conventionally, advocacy groups contribute to politicians through political action committees (PACs) that are regulated by the Federal Election Commission. A 527 organization is one that does not lobby or contribute directly to politicians and therefore files under a different tax status than other groups. 527s are not governed by FEC laws, and that constitutes a big loophole. Since 2000, 527 groups have had to disclose their donors and this information is also available publicly, but there are no restrictions on what one can give to a 527.

The ultimate consequence is that ongoing groups can start a 527 fund as long as it's kept completely separate from the rest of the groups' activities. In 2004 we saw a number of groups that just sprouted up, raised tens of millions of dollars, and then went away. These groups were using 527s as a temporary place to park money for political activity and most of them shut down after 2004. It's not clear whether they will appear again in 2008. But what we are seeing is groups that are specific to different congressional races forming. Pennsylvania and Colorado for instance, two states where there are competitive congressional races, have had 527 groups formed solely for the purpose of running ads in Senate or House races. These groups are unlikely to last beyond election day.

Has there been any effort to close that loophole?

Yes, Congress has spent a lot of time talking about solutions, but negotiations are complicated by the fact that most of the 527 money went to support Democrats in 2004, and they're not keen on doing this.

A good thing about the last election was that both Kerry and Bush raised far more of their money from small donors-people giving $50 or $100--than had been the case in previous elections. With both parties more interested in getting small donors, that's arguably good for democracy.

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I understand that Canada has since passed a law similar to BCRA, and that you're now researching its impact?

Yes. I'm trying to figure out whether the Canadian interest groups, which operate in a legal environment very different from what we have in the U.S., have adapted to their new laws in the same way that the U.S. groups have, and whether Canadian and American interest groups compare notes about strategies.

Were the Canadians grappling with similar campaign finance issues?

The Liberal Party in Canada was having numerous ethical problems. My hunch is that they were grasping for a law that they could pass to show they were serious about reform.

Canada, prior to the enactment of its new law, had allowed direct contributions to political parties from corporations and labor unions, something that hasn't been legal in the U.S. since the 1930s. In addition, Canada had had somewhat laxer rules about advertising in elections.

The new Canadian law prohibits contributions by businesses and labor unions to the parties and a Supreme Court decision in Canada completely eliminated issue advocacy. So in the six-week period between when an election is called and when it happens, no groups other than the parties can air ads that discuss the parties or candidates.

Is there a similar range of interest groups in Canada compared with what we have in the US?

No, they have far fewer, in part because the Canadian parliamentary system allows less freedom to individual party members. The members of the majority party are expected to vote with the majority party all the time. So it's very different from the U.S. system where an individual committee chairman, for instance, can wield a lot of power independently of his or her party.

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What sources do you access to answer these sorts of questions?

They're fairly eclectic. I've used campaign finance data, which is publicly available. The Federal Election Commission collects data on contributions by individuals, political parties, other organizations, etc. There are also a number of organizations in the U.S. that take the FEC data and make them more easily digestible by the public. I've drawn on public opinion surveys in some projects.

I also conduct a lot of interviews. For the project on U.S. interest groups, for instance, I've been talking to the political directors of about 20-25 of the major interest groups over the past three election cycles. I ask them about what they're doing differently in each election cycle and how their strategies are changing. I plan to do the same in the Canadian project.

What about for the Canadian research? Do they have similar data collection resources?

Their government is somewhat better about providing campaign finance data. It's a little easier to get a hold of data directly from the Canadian government. But it doesn't collect data in precisely the same way as in the U.S.

For example, in the U.S. if you donate more than $250 to a candidate, your name will be disclosed and you have to provide your address and your occupation or the name of your employer. This information makes it easy to know where the money a candidate raises is coming from. I have had students use this information to figure out how much money in a particular race was coming from in state versus from out of state. You can also explore what sorts of people are giving money, based on who a person's employer is. If, say, there are a lot of large contributions from employees at a particular company, we can safely assume that most of those donations are driven by the interests of the corporation. In Canada, while you can get donors'addresses, you can't identify someone's employer.

What opportunities are available in the government department for students wanting to participate in research?

A number of students have been doing their own research projects on campaign finance in the past few years. I've had students who've done archival research and research using campaign finance data. Our department has a special fund that helps support student research, whether it's research being done on his or her own, or collaboratively with a faculty member. Some of my students have gone on to do work related to campaign finance after graduation. Students can also do a senior honors thesis, and our department helps to support research for the honors thesis.

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