In the United States presidential elections are big business. More than fifteen months before the general election, candidates and their affiliated super-PACs have already raised almost $130 million. They will raise and spend many hundreds of millions more before the last ballot is counted. The vast majority of those dollars will be showered on a small fraction of the electorate residing in a handful of swing states, such as Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia, that will decide the 2016 presidential election.
Many scholars and commentators have lamented the unintended consequences of the Electoral College; the voice of millions of Americans will be marginalized in the months ahead. We argue that matters are even worse than they seem. The Electoral College does not just affect how politicians campaign for the presidency. It also affects how they behave in office, which is a central question in our new book, The Particularistic President: Executive Branch Politics and Political Inequality.
Proponents of a strong presidency have long emphasized the president’s national constituency. Members of Congress, elected by narrow geographic constituencies, face intense pressures to bring home the bacon for their districts. By contrast, the president is freed to focus exclusively on the general welfare. If correct, then greater delegation of policy-making authority to the president should produce more equitable policy outcomes. Indeed, the future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made this very argument in a 2001 article in the Harvard Law Review.
We argue that this logic is fundamentally flawed. The lessons learned in eighteen or more grueling months on the campaign trail are not easily forgotten once in office. The rise of the “permanent campaign” has done more than revolutionize presidential tactics. It has also fueled considerable political inequality in the allocation of federal resources. Constituencies that are of greater political importance to the president receive a disproportionate share of federal benefits. Most importantly, we argue that presidents use their considerable influence over distributive politics to court swing state voters and to take care of their partisan base even after the transition from campaigning to governing.
Presidents have strong electoral incentives to look after the interests of voters in swing states. In our book and other research, we find that voters hold presidents accountable when their local communities benefit from federal largesse and reward them at the ballot box. This incentive influences a diverse range of policy outcomes from trade protectionism to natural disaster declarations. However, its consequences are perhaps most tangible in the realm of dollars and cents. We analyzed the geographic allocation of more than $8 trillion in federal grants from 1984 through 2008, we uncover a striking pattern.
Even after controlling for a host of factors that influence how much grant money a locality receives, we find that communities in swing states receive a disproportionate share of federal grants. Moreover, this disparity swells every four years as the next election approaches. As shown in Figure 1, in 2008 four pivotal swing states – Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – received more than $1 billion in additional grant spending, by virtue of being swing states. These sums are substantial. However, they may even understate the potential for electoral incentives to skew the allocation of federal dollars. When the incumbent president is seeking reelection, our analysis suggests that swing states reap an even greater share of federal benefits.
Figure 1 – Estimated Increases in Grant Spending Secured by Swing States, 2008
Increasingly, campaign strategists have emphasized the importance of turning out the base. Our analysis also shows that presidents – playing the role of partisan-in-chief –do not neglect their core constituencies once in office. Communities in core states, which reliably back the president’s party at the ballot box, also receive disproportionate shares of federal largesse.
The map in Figure 2 illustrates the estimated increase in grant spending that a number of states received in 2008 because they solidly backed the incumbent Republican Party, rather than the Democratic Party. Our analysis estimates that Texas received more than $2 billion in additional grant spending in 2008 because George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office. By contrast, New York and California would have reaped significant rewards if John Kerry had defeated President Bush in the 2004 election. For large red and blue states, literally billions of dollars are on the line each time the nation heads to the polls.
Figure 2 – Estimated Increases in Grant Spending Secured by Core States, 2008
The result is substantial political inequality in the allocation of federal resources: inequality that is produced by presidents, not pork-barreling members of Congress. Indeed, while we find modest evidence that key members of Congress are able to bring home more federal dollars for their constituents, the magnitude of presidentially induced inequalities dwarfs those created by Congress.
Our results offer a cautionary warning to those who advocate delegating greater power to the executive branch. On many policy questions, presidents undoubtedly bring a different, more national perspective than do members of Congress. However, electoral and partisan incentives also impel presidents to pursue unequal outcomes that benefit politically important constituencies. Simply delegating power to the executive and hoping for the best is not a viable solution.