What's Hot at APSA

By Van Sant, Will | The Washington Monthly, September 1998 | Go to article overview

What's Hot at APSA


Van Sant, Will, The Washington Monthly


What the latest research reveals about race, crime money, politics, and American values

THIS MONTH, LEGIONS OF DEEP thinkers will converge on Boston for the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. There they'll compare research, schmooze in the cool, incipient New England fall breezes, and engage in some hard-core academic ruminating. And while the gathering most likely won't generate a media frenzy near the magnitude of, say, Monica Lewinsky's getting her hair done, attention paid to the work presented there can serve to inform debate on a host of pressing issues. In preparation for the conference, the Monthly took an informal survey of some of the nation's top political and social scientists to find out some of the more talked-about work that is to be presented.

Campaign Cash

Despite the high visibility many politicians and outraged public-interest groups have given to the issue of campaign finance reform, does anyone really know to what extent money spent campaigning affects electoral outcomes? Not according to Jeffrey Milyo of Tufts University. While admitting that a candidate with a dramatic monetary edge can use the cash to pad his vote share, Milyo says his research shows that small differences in spending between individuals has no discernible effect. (And in at least one instance, which we'll get to in a minute, he's found that this trend holds true even in elections with major spending disparities.) Milyo dismisses past research that has stressed the positive, vote-gaining effects of campaign spending as methodologically flawed. Insufficient controls for other factors that contribute to campaign victories, he asserts, have resulted in misleading conclusions. "If you approach this issue with the belief that money influences vote share, then you can find confirmatory evidence," says Milyo. "If your approach is more skeptical, then what you find is much less conclusive"

Researching this issue does indeed present a methodological challenge. How can a candidate's campaign wallet be isolated for study from other, less quantifiable attributes, such as likeability, integrity, and performance record--all of which not only make a politician a better fund-raiser, but of themselves contribute to electoral success? Indeed, this question highlights one of the persistent problems of the social sciences in general: Replicable and controlled environments in which to test hypotheses are few and far between. But thanks to the baser elements of human nature, Milyo was provided an episode which, in several aspects, resembles that of a controlled natural-science experiment.

In 1992 Enid Greene and Karen Shepard vied for an open U.S. congressional seat representing Utah's 2nd congressional district. Shepard defeated Greene by four percentage points. The two faced each other again in 1994, with Shepard as the incumbent and Greene the challenger. As the incumbent, Shepard would seemingly have had the edge. But this time around, Greene had a new husband, Joe Waldholtz, whom she happened to name her campaign treasurer. In the months leading up to the `94 election, Joe stole several million dollars from his new father-in-law--$1.8 million of which he funneled into Enid's campaign. Consequently, Enid Greene Waldholtz was the beneficiary of a windfall campaign contribution received independently of other variables that may have assisted in her victory. Aided by a late media blitz, presumably funded by the illegal contributions of her husband, Enid Greene Waldholtz won the `94 election by 10 percentage points.

Up to this point the evidence seems to suggest that campaign spending does, in fact, equal votes. And indeed, when Joe's imaginative fund-raising style was revealed in late 1995, many people in Utah accused Waldholtz of having bought the election--with stolen cash no less. A close look at the money spent and margin of victory, however, raises questions about the actual role the additional funds played in Waldholtz' victory. …

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