Yes, Politicians Buy Votes
If Mitt Romney thought the gotcha-obsessed political press would let him escape into obscurity following his election defeat, he has rather quickly been disabused of the notion. After Romney suggested in a private call with donors that President Obama’s re-election campaign was assisted by “gifts” to his strongest voting blocs, the punditry and political class blew a rare bipartisan gasket.
Of course, there are valid reasons to criticize Romney’s remarks. For one thing, they represent a fundamental misdiagnosis of the cause of his campaign’s failure. Romney didn’t lose because Obama offered voters “gifts”; Romney lost because he failed to connect with voters, most of whom believe that the federal government is doing too much.
But many of Romney’s critics seem to think that it’s somehow uncouth to suggest that President Obama would buy votes. In fact, Obama does buy votes — all politicians do.
Politicians are in the business of winning elections. They’ll spend campaign money to get into office, and once elected they’ll spend both campaign funds and tax money to stay there. Anyone who doubts that politicians secure their power through the generous use of taxpayer dollars need look no further than U.S. farm policy. Farm subsidies, some of the longest-lasting and most deeply entrenched of special interest programs, make little economic or social sense. Varying programs pay farmers to both farm and not farm, and some even pay people who aren’t farmers at all, as land once used for farming can still draw financial support from Uncle Sam long after it’s been retired. The Washington Post estimates that between 2000 and 2006 non-farmers received $1.3 billion in farm subsidies, a figure no doubt higher today. And many of the recipients of farm subsidies are much wealthier than the taxpayers who support them.
Every few years, there’s talk of addressing farm subsidies, but Congress never does anything. A strong bloc of farm-state lawmakers always stand firmly in the way. Both they and their constituents understand that they are put into office to keep the gravy train rolling. They even form coalitions of mutual support with lawmakers from urban districts to provide a stronger front against the interests of the taxpaying public. That’s why food stamps are part of the farm bill and distributed by the USDA. Earmarks have also long been a vital tool for this pork-barrel process, which is why their elimination was seen as a key piece of political reform.
More discerning critics of Romney’s statement might have pointed to frequent Republican dissembling and dodging on farm subsidies as proof that vote-buying is a bipartisan affliction, which would have been a legitimate criticism. Instead we got hand-wringing over the very idea that politicians might wave taxpayer dollars in front of specific voting blocs to secure their support. Yet thanks to the prominence of Iowa in the presidential primaries, even the most fiscally conservative of candidates is liable to bow down and kiss the farm subsidy ring, a ritual act of pandering to which voters are a willing party.
The common practice of pork-barrel politics has been a fact of political life for over a century. Farm subsidies are just one of many such schemes. Energy, financial services and defense spending bills are other vehicles through which politicians bring home the political bacon.
The politicians who bring home the most political bacon tend to be the hardest to unseat. A 2010 study by Professor Thomas Stratmann of George Mason University found that securing earmarks leads to higher vote shares for politicians, and that the effect is increased when earmarks are directed to a politician’s home state. Voters, it seems, like it when the pork flows their way.
Curiously, much of the outrage over Romney’s remarks has come from the right, where politicians at least rhetorically portray themselves as skeptical of government spending. Newt Gingrich described Romney’s comment as “nuts” and “insulting.” Bobby Jindal agreed that it is “insulting voters” to say that “votes were bought.” This might be little more than political grand-standing, but even so it represents what Republican politicians believe they should say to curry favor with the outraged.
But since when were voters beyond reproach? The News IQ Survey conducted by Pew Research in August found that only 60% of voters could identify Bain Capital as the company Romney once ran, and only 40% knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives but not the Senate. These results are not at all surprising, as there is plenty of research showing that most citizens know little about politics and public policy — which is understandable given the relatively small impact a single voter will have on an election, and the fact that people have more pressing matters in their day-to-day lives with which to concern themselves. But it is nevertheless a long-standing source of voter criticism.
Criticizing voters was certainly fashionable last year and earlier this year, during the Republican presidential primaries. Liberal pundits accused Republican primary voters of everything from racism to stupidity. Take, for example, Lawrence O’Donnell suggesting that Romney deliberately got booed by the NAACP in order to please his racist base, or Sam Donaldson’s accusation that “many on the political right … oppose [President Obama] not for his polices [sic] and political view but for who he is, an African American!” But insulting those kinds of voters is okay, as they clearly have it coming. Just don’t you dare imply that politicians are buying votes, or that voters love them for it.