The Relationship between Political Parties and Interest Groups: Explaining Patterns of PAC Contributions to Candidates for Congress

By Brunell, Thomas L. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Relationship between Political Parties and Interest Groups: Explaining Patterns of PAC Contributions to Candidates for Congress


Brunell, Thomas L., Political Research Quarterly


Interest groups are policy maximizers, while political parties are focused on maximizing the number of seats they win in Congress. These competing goals have important implications for the relationship between interest groups and parties. In this study I develop and test a theory concerning the patterns of hard money contributions from Political Action Committees (PACs) to candidates for the U.S. Congress. I argue that interest groups have preferences as to which party controls a majority of seats in Congress, which leads them to direct "sincere" and electorally useful money to this party (i.e., labor groups prefer Democrats, corporate groups prefer Republicans). When interest groups donate funds to the "other" party, the donations are designed to have as minimal electoral impact as possible. Interest groups accomplish this by giving "strategic" donations to this party in the following way: donate less money almost exclusively to incumbents (who typically do not need the money in order to be reelected). Thus, while many PACs do give money to both Democrats and Republicans, which indicates the importance of access, it is evident from the overall pattern of donations that these groups clearly favor either one party or the other.

Modem campaigns for the U.S. Congress require significant sums of money in order to be reasonably competent (Jacobson 2001). While candidates for seats in Congress do raise money from individuals, they heavily depend upon the financial support of interest groups to fund these campaigns. Indeed Political Action Committees (PACs) donate millions of dollars to candidates for federal office each electoral cycle. Thanks to the Federal Election Campaign Act, the record of who gives money to whom is quite clear. While scholars may be awash in data when it comes to campaign finance, this does not translate into a clear theoretical understanding of why interest groups give money to certain candidates and not others, and what the groups receive in return for these financial contributions. While "hard money" donations come from both individuals and interest groups, in this work, I am primarily interested in the relationship between interest groups (Political Action Committees) and candidates for federal legislative offices (the House and the Senate).1

PACs are multicandidate committees, which is to say that they are created to raise and distribute campaign funds to numerous candidates for federal office. Each committee may give up to $5,000 to each candidate per election (primary, general, and run-off elections are all separate and a candidate can receive the statutory maximum from a group for each one of these elections). PACs are also able to spend independently for or against candidates-these are efforts that are wholly independent from, and not coordinated with any official campaign. While the largest PACs raise and donate hundreds of thousands of dollars each election cycle, the average interest group raises and donates significantly less than that. Regardless of the size of a PAC, each group has a finite amount of money that it can donate in a given cycle and, naturally, the group seeks to maximize its usefulness. The key questions guiding this work are how do interest groups allocate their money among the multitudes of candidates? What are the principles guiding the allocation strategies? A fuller understanding of these patterns of donations ought to give us insight into the motivations of interest groups and their relationship with political parties.

First, I describe some prior research on PAC contribution. I outline my argument with respect to the motivations of interest groups; then the hypotheses are presented. In the following section, I describe the data used to test the hypotheses. Next are presented the results followed by the conclusions.

PREVIOUS RESEARCH

With the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) and the reporting requirements therein, extensive and detailed data are available for campaign contributions from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). …

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The Relationship between Political Parties and Interest Groups: Explaining Patterns of PAC Contributions to Candidates for Congress
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