Pathways of Interest Group Influence


Interest groups support candidates who are sympathetic to their views in hopes of gaining access to them once they are in office.John R. Wright. 1996. Interest Groups and Congress: Lobbying, Contributions, and Influence. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon; Mark J. Rozell, Clyde Wilcox, and Michael M. Franz. 2012. Interest Groups in American Campaigns: The New Face of Electioneering. New York: Oxford University Press. For example, an organization like the NRA will back candidates who support Second Amendment rights. Both the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (an interest group that favors background checks for firearm purchases) have grading systems that evaluate candidates and states based on their records of supporting these organizations.; (March 1, 2016). To garner the support of the NRA, candidates must receive an A+ rating for the group. In much the same way, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal interest group, and the American Conservative Union, a conservative interest group, both rate politicians based on their voting records on issues these organizations view as important.; (March 1, 2016).

These ratings, and those of many other groups, are useful for interests and the public in deciding which candidates to support and which to oppose. Incumbents have electoral advantages in terms of name recognition, experience, and fundraising abilities, and they often receive support because interest groups want access to the candidate who is likely to win. Some interest groups will offer support to the challenger, particularly if the challenger better aligns with the interest’s views or the incumbent is vulnerable. Sometimes, interest groups even hedge their bets and give to both major party candidates for a particular office in the hopes of having access regardless of who wins.

Some interests groups form political action committees (PACs), groups that collect funds from donors and distribute them to candidates who support their issues. As Figure makes apparent, many large corporations like Honeywell International, AT&T, and Lockheed Martin form PACs to distribute money to candidates. (March 1, 2016). Other PACs are either politically or ideologically oriented. For example, the PAC is a progressive group that formed following the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, whereas GOPAC is a Republican PAC that promotes state and local candidates of that party. PACs are limited in the amount of money that they can contribute to individual candidates or to national party organizations; they can contribute no more than $5,000 per candidate per election and no more than $15,000 a year to a national political party. Individual contributions to PACs are also limited to $5,000 a year.

An image of a table titled “PAC contributions to Candidates, 2015-2016”. From right to right, the rows read “New York Life Insurance: $831,200, 43.9% Democrat, 56.1% Republican”, “Boeing Co: $883,500, 43.1% Democrat, 56.9% Republican”, “Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers: $970,600, 98.3% Democrat, “Credit Union National Assn: $971,850, 44.7% Democrat, 55.3% Republican”, “American Bankers Assn: $978,888, 21.1% Democrat, 78.9% Republican”, “National Beer Wholesalers Assn: $990,700, 38.7% Democrat, 61.1% Republican”, “Northrop Grumman: $1,022,700, 42.9% Democrat, 56.9% Republican”, “AT&T Inc: $1,074,250, 36.2% Democrat, 63.8% Republican”, “Lockheed Martin: $1,253,250, 35.9% Democrat, 64% Republican”, “Honeywell International: $1,335,747, 33.2% Democrat, 66.8% Republican”. At the bottom of the table, a source reads “Center for Responsive Politics. “Top 20 PACs Giving to Candidates.” January 21, 2016.”.
Corporations and associations spend large amounts of money on elections via affiliated PACs. This chart reveals the amount donated to Democratic (blue) and Republican (red) candidates by the top ten PACs during the most recent election cycle.

PACs through which corporations and unions can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money on behalf of political candidates are called super PACs.Conor M. Dowling and Michael G. Miller. 2014. Super PAC! Money, Elections, and Voters after Citizens United. New York: Routledge. As a result of a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there is no limit to how much money unions or corporations can donate to super PACs. Unlike PACs, however, super PACs cannot contribute money directly to individual candidates. If the 2014 elections were any indication, super PACs will continue to spend large sums of money in an attempt to influence future election results.

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