Campaign Finance and Political Polarization

When Purists Prevail
Raymond J. La Raja and Brian F. Schaffner
An illuminating perspective on the polarizing effects of campaign finance reform


Efforts to reform the U.S. campaign finance system typically focus on the corrupting influence of large contributions. Yet, as Raymond J. La Raja and Brian F. Schaffner argue, reforms aimed at cutting the flow of money into politics have unintentionally favored candidates with extreme ideological agendas and, consequently, fostered political polarization.

Drawing on data from 50 states and the U.S. Congress over 20 years, La Raja and Schaffner reveal that current rules allow wealthy ideological groups and donors to dominate the financing of political campaigns. In order to attract funding, candidates take uncompromising positions on key issues and, if elected, take their partisan views into the legislature. As a remedy, the authors propose that additional campaign money be channeled through party organizations—rather than directly to candidates—because these organizations tend to be less ideological than the activists who now provide the lion’s share of money to political candidates. Shifting campaign finance to parties would ease polarization by reducing the influence of “purist” donors with their rigid policy stances.

La Raja and Schaffner conclude the book with policy recommendations for campaign finance in the United States. They are among the few non-libertarians who argue that less regulation, particularly for political parties, may in fact improve the democratic process.

“Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner have written an important book from a fresh research perspective that needs to be incorporated into all discussions of money in politics. From polarization to the proper role of the political parties, this book takes an extremely productive look at what is happening in the states and how that might serve as a laboratory for what works and what doesn’t in our elections.”
—Benjamin L. Ginsberg, Partner, Jones Day; former counsel to RNC, the Mitt Romney campaign, and the Bush-Cheney campaigns

“As American politics has grown more polarized, more shrill, and more deadlocked, reformers have been treating it with horse-doctors’ doses of the wrong medicine—or so Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner argue in this deeply researched, closely argued, and urgently important book. Instead, strengthening the role of parties and political professionals could begin restoring health to the body politic. This counterintuitive and compelling book will change the way you think.”
—Jonathan Rauch, Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution

“LaRaja and Schaffner's book upends conventional wisdom on money in politics. They demonstrate convincingly that our disfigured campaign funding system has led to the worst of all worlds: unlimited and unaccountable outside spending that polarizes our politics, alongside hamstrung political parties that would be in the best position to reign in extremists and create governing coalitions. The book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the mockery our campaign financing system has become.”
—Nathaniel Persily, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, Stanford Law School
“It might seem paradoxical that strengthening parties could actually reduce partisan polarization. But that is exactly the provocative argument that La Raja and Schaffner make. It is an argument worth taking seriously by anyone who wants to make American politics less divisive.”
—John Sides, George Washington University
“I believe this book will be one of the more important contributions in the last decade to understanding the dynamics of political polarization in America today. Campaign Finance and Political Polarization is methodologically innovative and impressive in the data bases it uses to take advantage of the ‘natural’ comparative social science ‘experiment’ in the effects of campaign finance regulation on the legislative process that results from different regimes across the states.” 
—Rick Pildes, New York University

Cover image: © NLshop/Veer

Raymond J. La Raja is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, and Associate Director of the UMass Poll.  Brian F. Schaffner is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, Director of the UMass Poll, and a Co-Principal Investigator for the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

Praise / Awards

  • "[La Raja and Schaffner] meticulously analyse party factions, who donates to political campaigns and why, and they also examine data that indicate how fewer restrictions on political parties increase financial support for moderate candidates. Anyone interested in looking at an alternative to the current campaign finance system should read this research."
    --London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books

  • "This is a very important book that will be widely discussed...It is highly readable and is backed by innovative data on state-level party polarization, the ideology of donors, and state campaign finance laws...Highly recommended."
    --Choice Reviews

  • Winner of the 2016 Virginia Gray Best Book Award from the American Political Science Association

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Campaign Finance Reform cited in The Conversation (Link) | 8/25/2018
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner cited in Vox (Link) | 9/11/2017
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner op-ed piece in the Washington Post (Link) | 10/26/2015
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner featured in the National Review (Link) | 10/27/2015
Listen: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner interviewed for New Books in Political Science (Link) | 11/29/2015
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner featured on Vox (Link) | 1/12/2016
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner featured in Pacific Standard (Link) | 1/4/2016
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner featured in LSE US Centre (Link) | 2/3/2016
Read: Ray La Raja and Brian Schaffner in Salon (Link and Link) | 2/16/2016

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 208pp.
  • 30 figures, 9 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07299-6

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  • $64.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05299-8

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  • $29.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90003-9

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