Campaign Donation Limits: Why We Really Need Them

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Limits on campaign contributions continue to slip away, with high courts ruling against them. First, in the Supreme Court case McCutcheon v. Federal Elections Commission, and then on April 24, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty struck down donation limits in New York. Surprisingly, Crotty acknowledged that there is a link between campaign finance and corruption. Unfortunately, he felt compelled to rule against the measures aimed to prevent this phenomena due to the possibility of infringing on first amendment rights. Many feel that this issue is black and white; namely, that campaign donations are a right of free speech or that they are ruining democracy. Yet, I think it is fair to say that the judicial branch is in a difficult position. A majority of Americans want campaign finance reform, yet, any attempt to do so could be a violation of constitutional rights (so it seems based on recent rulings).

While I would like to see reform, I acknowledge that there is a more concerning problem underlying the push for campaign contribution limits, and it starts with the obvious question, why exactly do people want to limit contributions in the first place?” The desire to limit campaign contributions arises from the fear of a distorted power distribution. Simply, the people who have the greatest wealth will have the greatest influence in politics.

In order to run a strong campaign, you need a lot of capital, and thus, politicians require significant financial backing. If someone voluntarily provides a politician with large financial donations, then by de facto the politician owes that financial backer, and hence, the corruption referred to by Crotty ensues. The fact that finances are so important in political elections principally gives citizens of wealth more potential value and gives them greater potential access to politicians than regular citizens.

But let’s back up for a minute. We need to ask the next question that naturally follows, why does it require a lot of money to win elections?” And this question gets us to the root of the problem. Politicians need a substantial amount of campaign finances in order to capitalize on the public’s immediate perception. Unfortunately, Americans are not educated on domestic and international politics and it shows in the polls. As Cato Unbound reports,

numerous polls show that voters grossly underestimate the percentage of federal spending that goes to entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, while greatly overestimating the amount spent on foreign aid[..] Widespread political ignorance isn’t limited to spending and health care[..] only 42% of Americans can name the three branches of the federal government: executive, legislative and judicial.

American’s knowledge regarding international affairs shows even less promise. So how does the American electorate make political decisions? They rely on heuristics in order to decide whom and what to vote for. A heuristic is essentially a cognitive shortcut that allows us to make decisions quickly, and one of the most commonly employed cognitive shortcuts is the availability heuristic. In the words of Albert Phung, when using this heuristic, people “rely on immediate examples that come to mind. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important.”

Political campaigns know this, and that is why they are constantly trying to get as much attention as possible, which requires a lot of money. Does the term ‘soundbites’ ring a bell? If people hear what a certain candidate is going to do over and over, they begin to think it is important.

The reason we fear unlimited campaign contributions is because the American people do not make educated voting decisions and instead, they are heavily influenced by how many soundbites they are subjected to. If every person were to decide who to vote for based on their own research, it wouldn’t matter how much money politicians raise and spend. But the sad fact remains that American’s do not do the research. My favorite example of this is the Associated Press Report Homer Simpson, Yes — 1st Amendment ‘Doh,’ survey results. According to the AP, “the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared to just 1 in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms.”

[ThinkProgress] [Investopedia] [Gallup] [SupremeCourt.Gov]

Bo Donoghue

Featured image courtesy of [Wonderlane via Flickr]


Bo Donoghue
Bo Donoghue is a student at The George Washington University. Contact Bo at



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