Does Cleanliness Lead to Competitiveness? The Failure of Maine’s Experiment with Taxpayer Financing of Campaigns

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Although it is a state of only modest size andinfluence, Maine finds itself on the cutting edge ofthe national movement to restructure campaignfinance through taxpayer financing of politicalcandidates. On November 5, 1996, voters passedthe Maine Clean Election Act by ballot initiative.That was the first piece of state or federal legislationto offer taxpayer financing to state-level candidateswho voluntarily accept spending limitsand refuse private contributions. The legislationapplied to state senate and house candidatesbeginning with the 2000 primary and general electioncampaigns (and will apply to gubernatorialcandidates beginning in 2002). November 2000'svoting was the first test of this new campaignfinance system, and the Maine legislature swornin on December 6, 2000, comprised the first set ofelected officials chosen under this system.

The adoption of taxpayer financing for the2000 election did not result in a substantiallymore competitive election than occurred underprivate funding in 1998. Although enhancedelectoral competition has been predicted as aresult of clean election reforms, the evidencefrom Maine implies the opposite. Comparison ofdistricts that had "clean" candidates in 2000with those that did not indicates that the cleandistricts displayed no improvement on two ofthree measures of electoral competitiveness andactually performed far worse on a third.

Specifically, clean districts exhibited no differencein victory margins or in contestedness--thefrequency with which candidates were unopposed--relative to "nonclean" districts. However, inthe case of openness--the tendency of incumbentsto run--clean districts were far more likely to haveincumbents running in 2000 and far more likely tohave switched from an open race in 1998 to one inwhich an incumbent was running in 2000.

An empirical analysis of the Maine electionsupports the following conclusions:

  • The overall average margin of victory inboth state senate and house races declinedby a statistically insignificant margin.
  • Races for open seats that featured government-financed candidates do not clearlyshow that taxpayer financing leads to morecompetitive elections.
  • Despite limits on campaign spending byincumbents, the advantages of holdingoffice were almost impossible to overcome.

Patrick Basham and Martin Zelder

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Martin Zelder is an economist at Analysis Group Economics in Boston.