Campaign finances affect voter knowledge, not trust

Research by CLA Dean John Coleman gives insight into campaign spending.

by Morgan Wolfe

A new University of Minnesota dean has played a key role in the decades-long conversation surrounding spending in political campaigns.

College of Liberal Arts Dean John Coleman is a pioneer in political campaign finance research. He helped establish positive relationships between spending and voter knowledge when he began his work on the subject 15 years ago.

In recent years, the discussion about limits to corporate political spending has pushed him to continue exploring the topic.

Coleman, who was a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before taking his post as CLA’s dean earlier this year, said political and campaign spending receive widespread disdain but play an important role in elections.

“Hardly anyone says that they like campaign spending,” Coleman said. “It’s just one of those things that they like to dislike.”

Coleman’s research, which examined public opinion data from surveys, shows that voters are more accurate in their knowledge of candidates’ political ideologies when campaigns spend more on advertising and outreach.

There was also no evidence in the data to suggest that voters were more distrustful of campaigns with higher spending, Coleman said.

In the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court equated political spending with free speech and held that the federal government could not restrict this spending for a corporation or union.

In recent months, the U.S. Senate has debated a constitutional amendment that would allow the government to regulate campaign spending.

Almost 80 percent of Americans would support limiting the amounts congressional candidates can raise and spend in a campaign, according to a June 2013 Gallup poll.

Research shows that voters with low incomes and education levels benefit the most from campaign spending, Coleman said, which could be a downside of limiting spending.

“If you start thinking about reducing the amount of spending … it may have this negative effect of knowledge for these types of people,” Coleman said.

Although Coleman’s research shows that campaign spending helps voters’ knowledge of candidates, some students say political ads aren’t as helpful.

“They appease the voters and bash the other parties,” junior Jenna Housley said.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who was re-elected Tuesday to serve her 22nd term in office, spent more than $55,000 on her campaign. She raised nearly $66,000, which she said was the most money she has received for a campaign.

Still, she said she’s found that campaign spending plays only a limited role in winning elections.

“Campaigns that are dependent on people power are much better than campaigns that are dependent on money,” Kahn said.

She thinks reversing the Citizens United decision would be helpful, and she supports the disclosure of campaign finances.

“One of the ways to get rid of the influences in campaign spending is by getting people out to vote,” Kahn said.