Cash dominance, 2-party rule, and naive exaggeration strategy


Most Americans believe big money is seriously undermining our government

December 2009: For the first time since Gallup began conducting its annual "Honesty and Ethics of Professions" poll, a majority (55%) of Americans responded that they believe the honesty and ethical standards of "members of Congress" are "low" or "very low."
August 2009: According to a newly released Rasmussen poll, though satisfaction with legislators has improved to a small degree since the presidential election, 57 percent of Americans would vote to reboot the U.S. Congress by replacing every single lawmaker and "starting over." The polling firm also said that while 18 percent were unsure, just 25 percent of voters would like to keep the present slate of lawmakers.
Majority in Poll Criticize Congress; Respondents Say Lawmakers Favor Special Interests, Profit Improperly
Washington Post story 26 May 1989 by Richard Morin & Dan Balz.
Three out of four Americans say that members of Congress will lie if the truth will hurt them politically, three in four believe House and Senate members favor special interests over the needs of the average citizen, and more than half believe lawmakers profit improperly from their office, based on the results of a Washington Post-ABC News Poll...

As you can see from the above quotes from news stories, Americans believe big money is a major problem in US politics. Some additional poll results:

  1. CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll 8 July 2002 (random telephone sample 1019):
    Do you think big business does or does not have too much influence
    over the decisions made by the Democrats in Congress?  yes: 64%, no: 28%
    Ditto for Republicans?                                 yes: 76%, no: 16%
  2. NBC News/Wall Street Journal Polls (over 1000 telephone each date): "Suppose Congress passed campaign reform legislation. Some people say that campaign finance reform would have a positive effect on the political system, because it would reduce the influence that the wealthy and special interests have on elections. Other people say that campaign finance reform would have no effect on the political system, because the wealthy and special interests would always find loopholes in the law and continue to have just as much influence on elections. Which point of view do you agree with more?"
    January 2000:       positive effect: 40%     reform would have no effect: 49%
    October 1999:       positive effect: 43%     reform would have no effect: 44%
       July 1997:       positive effect: 34%     reform would have no effect: 58%
  3. Pew Research poll (22 January 2009, telephoned 1503): Reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington should be
    a top priority:               36%
    important but lower priority: 34%
    not too important:            18%
    should not be done:            5%
    don't know/no answer:          7%
  4. NBC News poll (20 April 1993, telephoned 1004): "How much influence do you think people and organizations who make large campaign contributions have in determining what Congress and the president do?"
    great deal of influence: 69%
    just some influence      21%
    very little influence     8%
    not sure                  2%
  5. Times Mirror poll (July 1992; telephoned 3517) Do you think Congress is having mainly a good influence on the ways things are going in this country or mainly a bad influence?
    good influence 37%
    bad influence: 49%
    neither:        2%
    both:           5%
    no opinion:     7%

Big money genuinely is seriously undermining our government, country, and/or economy

This isn't just a perception, it is reality. See this study:

Michael J. Cooper, Huseyin Gulen, & Alexei V. Ovtchinnikov: Corporate Political Contributions and Stock Returns, The Journal of Finance (forthcoming 2009-2010).

What the US Constitution has to say about campaign cash

The US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has led to fears that this situation will worsen.

In Caperton vs. Massey (earlier decision issued 8 June 2009) the Supreme Court ruled that West Virginia's chief judge (Brent Benjamin) who was elected thanks to over $3 million spent by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in support of his campaign and against his opponent (former justice Warren McGraw), should have recused himself from the case Caperton v. Massey. He didn't, and his court ruled 3-2 in favor of Massey's appeal, thus overturning the lower court's award of $50 million to Caperton. Photos had also surfaced showing a smiling Justice Spike Maynard vacationing in the French Riviera with Blankenship while the case was pending; consequently Maynard recused himself. But Benjamin refused to do the same. (The Supreme Court decision now forces Caperton to be retried in a new court, hopefully featuring unbiased judges.)

The Supremes nevertheless emphasized that they saw no evidence Benjamin was corrupt, so evidently they thought the mere perception of bias was sufficient reason for recusal. However, evidently the supremes do not see it the same way for congressmen. In the view of the Supreme Court in Citizens United, any amount of money spent by corporations to support/oppose a candidate is fine, and is no reason for that candidate to abstain from voting on any bill before congress.

Not everybody has always agreed with the supreme court's view in Citizens United. In Robert Kaiser's book So Damn Much Money, The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government it is recounted (pages 150-151) how MS Senator John Stennis (served 1947-1989) was told to fundraise among military contractors while he was chair of the Armed Services Committee. "Would that be proper?" Stennis asked. "I hold life and death over those companies. I don't think it would be proper for me to take money from them." Stennis decided he'd prefer to risk losing to his opponent Haley Barbour rather than do that. (As it happens, Stennis won re-election anyway, but Barbour went on to become a lobbying-money ultra-heavyweight.) Lawrence Lessig contrasts Stennis with MT senator Max Baucus, who pocketed over $3 million in contributions from the healthcare and insurance industries during the 2005-2010 period during which he controlled healthcare in the Senate. Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 (while US president) said "All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law." The conservative supreme court chief justice William Rehnquist, in his 1978 dissent in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (in which a bank corporation successfully asserted that, as a "person," it had "free speech" rights to interfere in politics) said

Since it cannot be disputed that the mere creation of a corporation does not invest it with all the liberties enjoyed by natural persons [United States v. White, 322 U.S. 694, 698-701 (1944), corporations do not enjoy the privilege against self-incrimination], our inquiry must seek to determine which constitutional protections are "incidental to its very existence." [Dartmouth College, supra, at 636].
"The free flow of information is in no way diminished by the Commonwealth [Massachusetts]'s decision to permit the operation of business corporations with limited rights of political expression. All natural persons, who owe their existence to a higher sovereign than the Commonwealth, remain as free as before.

What can we do about this?

In view of the supreme court's stance, any attempt to restrict corporate political speech=expenditures is likely to fail, and also is questionable and dangerous for the reasons the supreme court stated – their decision certainly was not entirely groundless.

Also, attempting to fund political campaigns with taxpayer money is also worrysome and encounters some difficulties (who should qualify for free money?). Both these ideas might have value, but they are not easy, painless, riskless, and trouble-free.

A different, and perhaps better, way to partly-solve the problem posed by Big Money in politics, which is easy, painless, and trouble-free – and constitutional – is to change the voting system to a different form, one inherently less affected by money and more affected by "who is the best candidate?"

Why does money matter so much in politics?

"There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second one."
– US Senator, Industrialist, and political "fixer" Marcus A. Hanna(1837-1904).

Q. Why does money matter so much? Think about it.

A1. Because it pays for advertising. Without advertising, candidate cannot get information about himself to the voters.
Oh? Fact is, in the modern internet era, it is possible for very small money – the amount available to a typical unfunded single individual – to build a web site providing more information about yourself, accessible more quickly by any enquirer, than is contained in all the TV ads in the entire campaign of a typical senator or congressman, combined! – despite those TV ads costing a thousand times more.
So, sorry – this explanation was not correct.
A2. The press won't take my campaign seriously unless I spend a lot of money on ads.
But why is that? Why can't you be serious without spending huge money? Suppose you are, say, a university professor who's spent his entire career studying, say, pollution. (There are many of them who are pretty serious about their area of study despite being comparatively light in the wallet.) Or an MD who wants to change the health insurance system. And why should you be forced to mount a multimillion dollar advertising campaign to get elected? That's not a requirement to get other kinds of jobs involving a lot of power and/or knowledge, and those job-positions get filled quite well nevertheless. (In fact, better than congress, based on the above poll results.) So, sorry – this explanation, while getting closer to the truth, is not the whole truth.

The truth is different. With the present plurality ("vote for one") voting system, it matters little whether you are objectively the best candidate. What matters is being perceived as having one of the top 2 biggest chances of winning.

Why? Because a vote for anybody besides the top 2 "frontrunners" is a "wasted vote" which will not influence the election outcome. Donations are similarly wasted. So hardly anybody votes for, or donates to, non-frontrunners. "Third parties" weaken and die. This in turn causes the press to pay attention only to the two frontrunners. That amplifies the vicious circle. So this perception becomes crucial. Objectively being the best candidate, is of little importance in comparison.

So how do you get perceived as being top two? By spending huge money, that's how!

And note, this is not a matter of "transmitting information." You can say on your web site all you want "I'm the best (and here's why) so I should be a frontrunner" and it won't matter. This is a matter of creating perceptions about who is likely to win.

So the mathematics of the voting system itself (the fact votes for non-frontrunners are "wasted") cause money to assume an all-important role... But different voting systems have different mathematics. In some, there is no such thing as a "wasted vote."

In which single-winner voting systems is money all-important?

Conjectured answer: if a large percentage of voters adopting the following "naive exaggeration strategy" (NES) for voting forces one of the two frontrunners to win (making electing anybody else virtually impossible) then

  1. Money will be all-important.
  2. Two-party (or one-party!) domination will rapidly or gradually set in and once established will be permanent.

On the other hand, if with 100% NES voters (all agreeing on who the two "frontrunners" are) that voting system still makes it possible for a non-frontrunner to win a substantial fraction of the time, then money will not be all-important.

Definition of "naive exaggeration strategy" (NES) for voting: The NES voter identifies the two "frontrunners" most likely (in her estimation) to win. She votes for one with the maximum vote allowed by the rules of the voting system, and against the other with the maximum allowed in the opposite direction. (She does this in a naive attempt to "maximize the impact" of her vote.) Finally, if the voting system allows her to express information about other candidates besides these two, she does so.

Voting systems in which the "NES test" predicts money will be (or not be) all-important. (Math wonks may click these links to see the math underlying the mysterious numbers 66.7%, 75%, 100%, and 22.9 mentioned below.)
Voting systemMoney all important?Comment
PluralityYes.With at least 66.7% NES voters, mathematically impossible for a non-frontrunner to win. In the USA, about 80-100% of voters employ NES strategy. The total number of third-party members in the US congress is (and has been for the last several congresses) zero.
Instant Runoff (IRV)Yes.If the percentage of NES voters exceeds 75%, then it is mathematically impossible for a non-frontrunner to win. In Australia, which has used IRV to elect its 150-member House for over 80 years, basically about 80-95% of voters employ NES strategy. In their last 3 house election cycles, the total number of third-party members who won seats was 0, 0, and 0.
Bucklin system with strict rank-order ballotsMaybe.With 100% NES voters, mathematically impossible for a non-frontrunner to win except if perfect 3-way tie. But with only 90% NES voters, a popular third-party candidate could win if there is a near-tie between the two major-party candidates; the chance rises as we lower the percentage of NES voters.
Condorcet systems with strict rank-order ballotsMaybe.With 100% NES voters, mathematically impossible for a non-frontrunner to win except if perfect 3-way tie. But with only 90% NES voters, a popular third-party candidate could win if there is a near-tie between the two major-party candidates; the chance rises as we lower the percentage of NES voters.
Approval & Range votingNo.Even with 100% NES voters, an "underdog" will still win at least 22.9% of the time in the random election model (which has all candidates equal in perceived quality, but not in perceived winning chances!) regardless of the number C≥3 of candidates.

Based on this comparison, there is no comparison. Among the systems tabulated, approval and range voting are the only ones clearly passing the NES test. Only they have a strong hope of evading money-domination of politics.

See, if you are Big Money and you want to dominate present-day politics, your task is easy. You simply buy and pay for the two major parties (or even better, only one if you get to take advantage of US congress races being 98% predictable over a year in advance).

However, if there is not two-party domination, and the voting system is such that all candidates have a decent shot at winning no matter who is perceived as being most likely, then probably somebody is going to run who isn't in your pocket. And the media will cover them since they now actually do have a shot at winning. And they'll attract donors (same reason). And they'll (if the electorate thinks they are comparably- or better-qualified than your candidate) win a decent percentage of the time, even if you convince everybody only your bought-two have a chance because only they have huge funding. Bummer.

TO DO???

The NRA. Better polls? More links and make them local. Condorcet with equal rankings permitted can resemble approval voting. Ditto Bucklin variants. Feedback & tipping points.

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