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BYU center to track 2004 election spending, evaluate impact of new legislation

Political scientists awarded $600,000 to assess new campaign finance law

The Pew Charitable Trusts awarded $600,000 to researchers at Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy to investigate how new campaign finance rules change the way money is raised and spent in the 2004 presidential and congressional elections.

The Supreme Court recently upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which closes campaign finance loopholes like party soft money and potentially produces new ones, including the possibility that interest groups and wealthy individuals will mount their own campaigns for or against particular federal candidates.

“The Supreme Court likened political spending to water that will always find a way through barriers,” said political scientist David Magleby, dean of BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences and principal investigator of the grant. “We’re going to track that flow and watch where it runs.”

Study co-investigators are Kelly Patterson, BYU Political Science Department chair and newly appointed director of the center, and Quin Monson, assistant director of the center.

Part of the project will examine how previously active large donors, some of whom contributed more than $100,000 of soft money in recent elections, choose to spend their money during the 2004 campaign.

As in 1998, 2000 and 2002, the center will utilize a nationwide network of political scientists to canvass competitive congressional races that are considered up for grabs and most likely to attract outside involvement. The center’s book, “The Last Hurrah? Soft Money and Issue Advocacy in the 2002 Congressional Elections,” is scheduled for release by the Brookings Institution Press in March.

Results from the center’s past projects have been widely cited and used by both parties and by the federal courts. Past findings revealed that money spent by political parties and interest groups in tight races often equals or exceeds the total spending by the candidates, effectively doubling the spending in these close contests.

The researchers also showed that under previous disclosure laws, television viewers had a hard time distinguishing between advertisements from candidates and commercials aired by interest groups and political parties.

“David Magleby’s series of studies of outside money have documented how party soft money and candidate-specific issue advertising transformed the conduct and financing of elections,” said Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “This research played a key role in the drafting and legal defense of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.”

The Supreme Court also took notice of the BYU research, with justices on the majority and minority sides of the opinion citing Magleby in the landmark Dec. 10 ruling that upheld the BCRA.

The new law will especially affect the conduct of the relatively few closely contested congressional races across the country, said Patterson, who studied the competitive race for Utah’s 2nd District in 2002. He predicts more early participation by outside groups because of the limitations on television advertising 60 days before the general election.

“Many groups underestimated just how competitive the 2nd District is,” he said. “Outside groups may not have the flexibility in the next cycle to drop large sums of money at the last minute to try to influence the outcome.”

Patterson’s study of the 2002 Utah race is one of the case studies included in the forthcoming Brookings Institution Press book.

The BYU researchers also anticipate that 2004 will see a continuation of the shift by campaigns toward “ground war” activity such as phone banks, direct mail and person-to-person contact because these activities are not as stringently regulated as television ads. In the 2002 South Dakota and Minnesota Senate races, the researchers estimated that the average registered voter received 19 pieces of political mail in the three weeks prior to election day.

“This extraordinary volume has a numbing effect on voters,” said Monson. “Voters, like those in South Dakota during 2002 who received a deluge of mail, telephone calls and then saw nonstop television ads every night, just wanted it to stop. They learned to tune it out and turn to trusted sources like their daily newspaper for help in making their decisions.”

The Pew funding allows the BYU team to extend their series of studies and contrast the 2004 contests with the 1998-2002 races. Magleby anticipates Congress and the courts will revisit campaign finance in the next five years and hopes the 2004 research will help inform that process.

Writer: Joseph Hadfield

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