Meditation on Money as Political Heuristic

heuristic is a “rule of thumb,” usually derived from experience. For example, when I get an email telling me that my inbox is full and I should immediately click on this link to ask my “administrator” to expand its capacity, use of a heuristic tells me to delete the message as spam (or worse).

Heuristics are valuable time-savers, but they can also lead us to unwarranted conclusions, by oversimplifying complicated issues.

I’ve been thinking about the increasing use of campaign contributions as a heuristic in voting ever since the midterms. Full disclosure: our daughter was one of the three (successful) candidates for the Indianapolis Public School Board whose endorsement by an “out of state” organization and ability to raise money was the basis of assertions by opponents that they were somehow less committed to public education than candidates who were not endorsed and who raised very little money.

Suspicions about money are understandable in the wake of Citizens United, in an era when Super Pacs, 527s, “dark money” from people like the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Karl Rove and others regularly advance the prospects of special interests. But all endorsements and all funding sources aren’t equal.

If a candidate or campaign is endorsed by an organization with which you have significant policy disagreements, that’s obviously a legitimate reason to withhold your support, but the mere fact that an endorsement comes from a national group is not. Being national–even being “out of state”– is not in and of itself nefarious. Similarly, candidates who raise only trivial amounts of money either aren’t considered viable by most donors or aren’t working very hard–and neither is a positive sign.

Let’s take an example: When Freedom Indiana was fighting HJR 3, the ban on same-sex marriage, help from national organizations like Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign was critical to that effort–and to the effort to raise essential campaign funds.

What is important is transparency.

We need rules and mechanisms that permit voters to know where candidates are getting their money and what it is those contributors stand for. (Also–although since Buckley v. Valeo the Supreme Court has consistently failed to recognize it– we need rules limiting the amount of money that any particular person or organization can contribute, directly or indirectly.)

I’ll be the first to agree that the current rules governing campaign funding–if one can even dignify them as “rules”–aren’t helpful.

Voters should be able to look at the sources of a candidate’s support, and make their own judgments about what that support means, and whether they agree or disagree with the positions of the endorser or contributor. In the school board race, voters had that information, but in far too many situations, they don’t know who is behind the “Grandmas and Kittens PAC.” We need far more–and more frequently reported– information than we currently have, and we need enforcement of the rules (few and weak as they are) that do exist.

That said, all money isn’t evil and all issues aren’t exclusively local. Rules of thumb have their place, but they need to be properly applied.


  1. When there is an out of state organization involved in local politics, it’s natural to ask “what’s in it for them?” In the case of someone like Lambda Legal, the answer is fairly obvious — they are committed to gay rights nation wide because equal rights are important everywhere.

    When the answer is not as obvious, you have to look a little harder. Sometimes the reasons are nefarious and sometimes they’re not. And, of course, local support is never entirely disinterested either. But, with local support, at least when the situation goes south, they’re more likely to be stuck in the mess with you.

  2. Heruistics are only a vauable tool when the public – primarily voters – take the time to look into full disclosure and have the intelligence to apply them to each candidate and each contributor. Business connections are often much easier to trace to a candidate and deduce repercussions, or benefits, if they are elected. Individual contributors are more difficult to track; before and after elections. Government bodies should look into these facts and raise questions prior to elections and pay close attention to these names after a candidate is elected. The fact that your son created your daughter’s web site as candidate for the local school board should not raise flags for thinking people. She was completely transparent in her list of “contributors”; anyone who questioned that fact should be viewed with a jaundiced eye:) Someone had to create her site and no rule requires it be in state; being a school board positon he won’t benefit by her win.

    I must again move back to the Goldsmith administration and his connection to the individual Warren Tyler; a Columbus, Ohio resident, vice-president of a Columbus, Ohio bank and major contributor to Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign. The contract with him to “study public housing” quickly and quietly slipped through the Metropolitan Development Commission. No questions were asked till a few months later when his 9 month contract for $52,000 was requested (ordered) by Goldsmith to be lengthened by three months to a full year at the fee totaling $100,000. Then calls from Commissioners began pouring in asking who Warren Tyler is and what does he do. My truthful responses were listened in on by someone “close” to Tyler and I was reprimanded for answering questions truthfully; my job as MDC records secretary was to maintain contact with Commissioners at all times. I was also put on a 30-day performance probation for not doing my job, having a bad attitude and having surgery. By then, Tyler was fully ensconced within City government…including quietly and illegally appointed interum director of Department of Metropolitan Development but put in few appearances in the City-County Building. His bank connections brought in countless Ohio businesses who were contracted with in numerous areas and Indiana tax dollars benefited Ohio rather than Indiana.

    What does that have to do with today’s blog? Both began as individual contributors to a candidate’s political campaign with very different results. Tyler’s name was listed as a contributor just as Sheila’s son was; full transparency regarding disclosure. Citizens United wasn’t in effect at that time and Tyler was an individual contributor; heuristics didn’t appear to apply in his case, there was no “rule of thumb” to compare what resulted in one man’s powerful hold on this city government and the public was never made aware of these costly results. But; how can the public possibly be aware of all information required to make intelligent decisions on election day? Today the media’s “rule of thumb” is to obfuscate, confuse, stir emotions, missquote and provide gossip level misinformation rather than report facts which would allow voters to make their own comparisons and reach intelligent decisions.

  3. I do a climate science class which includes my definition of “common sense” as sense that makes sense to one’s senses, vs science theory as evidence based revelations of reality which are often well beyond our senses. Common sense is thus heuristic which is not nothing but as limited as a wandering caveman’s awareness of threats and opportunities in his specific time, place and scale. This is how brand marketing influences emotions if not intellect.

    So campaign funding to inform is democratic, but that spent on branding is dysfunctional.

    So the problem we are currently experiencing comes not from the source or amount of campaign spending but what it is spent on.

    If the Koch bros spent money on the message that we should vote for fossil fuels because that would move them up the list of global top ten wealthiest at the expenses of our children and grandchildren I would have no objection. In fact I might even chip in.

    IMO the path back to democracy goes through regulation of the message not the money. As I said the other day the most practical of such restriction would be limiting campaigning to face to face debates managed by news media professionals. Simple to regulate, relatively inexpensive, and demonstrative of what we hire political professionals to do. Think, be informed and present their positions pursuasively.

    Sadly such change’s biggest obstacle is also the biggest need for it. The brand marketing that would line up to resist it would be monumental.

  4. Remembering back to my youth in Alabama in the 50’s donor names were not disclosed to those wanting to know who in the civil rights era donated to the NAACP to protect the donors rights.

    Today I see people being fired from their jobs because their names were disclosed as donors to Proposition 8 (Eliminates Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry).

    I guess it just depends on the politics of who is being fired as to disclose their names.

  5. I am an outlier on this issue, I know, but I believe campaign money should be capped for each office at a set amount, government funded, with all ads, both print and video, vetted by an independent commission/committee for honesty and accuracy. I also believe that the campaign period be limited and that NO outside groups be permitted to advertise in support of any candidate except for a limited and monitored support from the individual candidate’s party. Money is not, and despite the Supreme Court’s horrible ruling, speech. In fact the veryidea of “Free” speech is made ludicrous by the thought that it can be purchased. Let’s give the candidates an even and platform and equal funds and then let them make their case within a fixed time frame. Then let the voters decide–not outside influences.

  6. Pete is right. As long as vast sums are spent on incomplete or false information it is all just brainwashing. TV and radio ads or mailings with nothing but platitudes or attacks do nothing to help the voter make an informed choice.

  7. In Wisconsin transparency is ignored for political contributions, but if you signed a petition to recall the boy governor you became a member of the new blacklist.

  8. Just saw a Facebook post reporting Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the nation. No surprise to me when this state shows up at the bottom of any list.

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