Campaign Funding, Political Rhetoric, and the Public (Non)Response to Rising Inequality

Awarded Scholars:
Peter Enns, Cornell University
Nathan Kelly, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Jana Morgan, University of Tennessee-Knoxville
Christopher Witko, Saint Louis University
Project Date:
Nov 2012
Award Amount:

  • July 2016: Additional funding of $70,000 awarded to support the additional programming time and effort required to convert the PDF files that can be read by text analysis software.

Data from several national surveys suggests that while economic inequality has been on the rise, public support for redistributive policy has remained constant or declined. This is puzzling because the long-standing median voter theory suggests that the general response to increasing inequality will be a greater demand for redistribution. This leads to an important question: Why has public support for redistribution and more egalitarian economic policies been so anemic in the face of rising inequality?

Professor Peter Enns at Cornell University, and his colleagues Nathan Kelly and Jana Morgan at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Christopher Witko at Saint Louis University, believe that they have an answer to this question. Their basic premise suggests that politicians of both major political parties have become increasingly dependent on the resources provided by wealthy contributors and corporations. As a result, political speech has evolved over time to increasingly emphasize economic efficiency and small government while deemphasizing redistribution and the role of the state in the common good. The natural consequence of this shift in rhetoric has been to dissuade and undermine public support for redistribution or policies that might stem the tide of rising inequality.

Professor Enns and his colleagues will test this theory in several stages, developing the data for each stage as they move forward. Their thesis predicts that levels of redistributive and egalitarian policy rhetoric will decline as the level of campaign contributions from wealthy and business donors increases. To construct the campaign funding variables, data on campaign contributions will be drawn from information collected by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Since the late 1970s, the FEC has categorized all contributions over $200 by the source of the donation, such as corporations, labor, individual, or political party committees.

Relying on recent advancements in automated content analysis and other qualitative analysis software, Enns and his colleagues will also examine all speeches and content inserted into the Congressional Record by members of Congress from 1970 to 2011. Enns and his colleagues will categorize the text based on topic codes already constructed by the Policy Agendas Projects housed at the University of Texas-Austin. They will conduct additional content analysis to create an ideological score for each entry into the Congressional Record; those scores will be used to create a data set of Congressional rhetoric at the member-level within each policy. The focus in this project is on topics related to inequality and redistribution and, when these data are merged with the campaign funding data set, the investigators will be able to test the predicted relationship between campaign contributions and change in political rhetoric.

After they explore the relationship between campaign funding and political rhetoric, the next step is to examine how changes in political rhetoric influence public opinion. Drawing data from public opinion surveys collected over the past several decades at the national level, Enns and his colleagues will use the multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) technique to estimate state-level variation in public opinion. Beginning with analyses at the national level, they propose to assess the hypothesis that macro-level public opinion shifts in a conservative direction as redistributive rhetoric diminishes. State-level analyses will be carried out that will provide greater detail on how such factors as union density or policy liberalism mediate public responses to elite rhetoric.


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