Rice researcher examines campaign finance regulations in new ‘laboratory’

Rice researcher examines campaign finance regulations in new ‘laboratory’

Rice News staff

When the state of Connecticut passed campaign finance regulations in 2005, it offered a unique laboratory for political scientists studying how money affects politics. Keith Hamm, professor of political science, has received funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to pursue his work on how politicians, donors and lobbyists have reacted to Connecticut’s new standards since their implementation in the 2008 statewide election.


“It’s a fantastic opportunity for the research community,” Hamm said. Under the new rules, “how do legislators change their behavior?” he asked. “How about donors and lobbyists? Will the legislation produced be different?”

Connecticut’s campaign reform offered lawmakers what Hamm described as “generous” public funding, but only if they accept rather strict contribution and spending limits. Candidates must collect a large number of small contributions between $5 and $100 from a specified number of residents in their districts (150 contributors for Assembly candidates and 300 for Senate candidates) to ensure that they had some grassroots support.

Hamm’s research will follow the money, examining records from before the 2005 law and after. Will there be a “water-balloon effect,” in which donations that once went directly to a candidate’s electoral campaign shift to issue advertising, for instance, or wining-and-dining expenses? Hamm suspects interest groups “will find a way to get their message to the candidate” despite the new restrictions.

Moreover, not all of Connecticut’s legislators opted for the public financing. As a result, they can continue to accept donations as they did before the reform passed. This group will serve as a control for Hamm’s research.

Hamm is working with colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, the University of Massachusetts, the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Connecticut.

Following what Hamm called “a tortuous path,” the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Carnegie Corporation stepped in this summer to allow the work to proceed. He had received a commitment to fund the research from the JEHT Foundation, a national philanthropic organization. However, the JEHT Foundation stopped all grant making and closed its doors at the end of January 2009, after announcing the funds of its donors had been managed by now-jailed financier Bernard Madoff.

In addition to studying how political money is spent, Hamm hopes to examine larger issues, like money’s effect on democracy. Does public funding help determine how many candidates choose to run for a particular position? And will the limits on donations to most lawmakers move the battleground from the electoral process to the legislative process? Hamm plans to produce the first report on his findings after the 2010 elections.

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