WASHINGTON – When Arizonans open their wallets to make a political donation, it’s more likely to go to someone they know than to a party or PAC, an analysis of federal campaign data shows.
Among Arizonans who gave $200 or more in the last federal election, 60 percent of their money went to candidates, according to a review of data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Another 22 percent went to political parties and 9 percent each went to political action committees or outside spending groups, the data show.
By contrast, 48 percent of political donations nationally went directly to candidate campaigns while 16 percent went to outside spending committees, 10 percent to PACs and 26 percent to parties.
And Arizona giving to candidates has remained relatively constant, despite changes in campaign finance law after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which lifted limits on donations to independent political groups.
While individual donations to candidates nationally shrank from 60 percent of overall giving in 2008 to 54 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012, Arizona donors steadily sent about 60 percent of their donations to candidates over the past four election cycles.
But experts are divided on what the pattern means – if anything – for voters or politicians in the state.
Arizona Republican Party spokesman Tim Sifert said he thinks more donations directly to candidates is good for voters. It fosters better communication with the candidates, he said, which is important when those politicians make decisions as elected officials.
“We would hope that the voters are well informed, and the way that voters become well informed is that the candidates communicate to them,” Sifert said. But those communications – through radio, television, postcards and mail advertising – all cost money.
Sifert said candidates deserve some support.
“Candidates are on the front line, are the ones that are knocking on the doors, going neighborhood to neighborhood, and giving speeches,” he said. “And it’s good to have as much as information and communication as possible.”
But Ilya Somin, a George Mason University law professor, said spreading the wealth beyond the politicians alone is probably a good thing for voters.
“We wouldn’t want the candidate to be the only one that can influence public opinion,” said Somin, who said it is important that independent groups have the ability – and the money – to comment on campaigns.
“You could say that if the money goes directly to candidates that’s better in some ways,” he said. “But it’s also good for independent groups to engage in political issues, too.”
Somin said that groups other than candidates play an important role in campaigns.
“It’s important to have some sort of balance between the two,” he said.
Frances Lee, a University of Maryland government and politics professor, said donors get an important benefit from giving directly to a candidate that they don’t get from giving to a party or to a group. Giving directly to the campaign helps build a donor’s relationship with the candidate, which is the main motivation for such contributions, she said.
“Campaign finance is very much about those efforts to create favor with lawmakers, rather than efforts to shape public policies or shape the party composition of Congress,” Lee said. She added that contributors want the candidate “know they are a supporter.”
But while such donations may give donors a personal stake in a campaign, it does not mean they will benefit in other ways from what they give, said Brian Murray, a partner at Phoenix-based Summit Consulting Group. The firm provides consulting services to political campaigns.
“Candidates have already made up their minds on issues and it doesn’t really change how they deal with their constituency,” Murray said of direct contributions.
“I’ve never met an elected official or candidate who changed the position because they thought they’re going to raise extra money,” he said.
Murray said that sort of giving is just a way for donors to contribute to issues they support and wouldn’t affect candidates.
While Lee said Arizonans might give more to candidates in an effort to “maintain good political ties” with individual lawmakers, Sifert suggested the relatively high level of giving might have to do with the intensity of primary challenges in a state like Arizona that leans heavily toward one party.
But Matthew Roberts, spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State‘s Office, said it’s difficult to tell what motivates people to give their money to one group or another.
“Typically people give to candidates or political organizations or committees that they feel comfortable with, so it would be hard to say why people give money to certain group rather than the other,” Roberts said.
No matter whom people choose to contribute to – Republicans or Democrats, candidates or political groups – it’s just good that they are giving, said Roberts.
“It’s good to have voters and people around the state contributing to whatever political candidate or organization that they feel inclined to, to get them engaged in the process,” he said.