UW Study on Corporate Campaign Contributions


This November marks the first presidential election held since the landmark Citizens United case. Research by political scientists at UW Madison looks at whether there has been overwhelming corporate election influence so far.

In Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. The Chair of UW Madison’s political science department has researched some of the fallout from the decision.

At a public forum, Professor Ken Mayer cited work done by his colleague John Coleman. It shows that what we tend to think of as “corporations”–Fortune 500 companies–have not had a major role in recent elections. “There’s virtually no evidence that publicly traded corporations have made sustained contributions to election efforts: independent campaigns, contributions to advocacy groups.”

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That is not to say corporations are sitting by the sidelines. There are different kinds of corporations, and Mayer says most of the trackable corporate contributions come from privately held corporations. The Koch brothers for instance, have a privately held corporation that has spent money in elections around the country, including Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race.

While corporate spending may influence the outcome of elections, Mayer says research indicates it may not directly help the corporation. “There’s actually no evidence that states that allow unlimited corporate activity or even direct contributions to campaigns that they don’t’ have tax structures or concentrations of wealth that are more favorable than states that have these restrictions.”

Still, a recent Associated Press poll finds that 83 percent of those surveyed want limits on the amount that corporations and unions could spend to help candidates for president, U.S. Senate and the House.