“Assessing Group Incentives, Independent Spending, and Campaign Finance Law by Comparing the States”

CFI release:

The surge in independent spending (IEs) in state elections between 2006 and 2018 cannot adequately be explained by the Supreme Court’s decisions that seemed to liberate IEs a decade ago. Moreover, the spending by ideological and issue groups would not be reversed by such simple legal expedients as removing all contribution limits for candidates and political parties.

These were only two of the policy conclusions in an article based on data supplied by the National Institute on Money in Politics (NIMP) that was just published by the peer-reviewed Election Law Journal (ELJ).

The article, entitled “Assessing Group Incentives, Independent Spending, and Campaign Finance Law,” was co-authored by Charles R. Hunt (Boise State University), Jaclyn J. Kettler (Boise State University), Michael J. Malbin (University at Albany, SUNY and CFI/NIMP), Brendan Glavin (CFI/NIMP) and Keith E. Hamm (Rice University).

It is available on an “open access” basis directly from the Election Law Journal.

The article shows how important it is to get away from sweeping generalizations about independent spenders. The authors created a database categorizing 97% of the IEs in the states with usable data. This showed that the actions and considerations of IE groups are much more nuanced than previously assumed. Different spenders (and different types of spenders) place their priorities on different goals, some of which are better realized through IEs than contributions. The behavior of ideological and issue groups differs from that of parties and party-affiliated groups, which in turn differs from business and labor. If the recent increase in IEs is a normative problem, the solution will be more elusive than previously thought.

The following is the article’s full Abstract, as it appears in the journal:


Independent expenditures (IEs) in elections have increased substantially at nearly all levels of government over the past decade. Judicial decisions are only a partial explanation. The growth has been uneven across jurisdictions and types of spenders. Some past research has sought to identify what has caused the differential increase.

We examine two prominent theories using original state-level data with detailed classifications of spenders, together with data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, the Campaign Finance Institute’s historical database of state campaign finance laws, and other sources. First, we examine different types of partisan electoral competition, on the theory that independent spenders are increasingly aligning with one party or the other. We find, using multi-variate analysis, that increased partisan competition (at both the candidate level and chamber level) is in most cases a significant driver of IEs.

Second, we assess the theory that campaign finance contribution limits incentivize independent spending, weakening the parties and candidates. We find that limits on contributions to candidates is associated with greater IEs as a whole, but this association only held for some types of spenders. Importantly, we also find that limits only on contributions to and from the parties have little relationship with IEs beyond those of the formal parties and their closest affiliates.

State-by-state ideological and issue-driven spending appears to have weak or no association with contribution limits. Therefore, if the recent increase in IEs is in fact a normative problem, the solution may be more elusive than previously thought. While campaign finance laws can be changed (with difficulty), partisan competition is even more difficult to contain.  


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