Big oil doesn’t pay to elect climate deniers (but rewards them once they’re elected)

  • Published on February 27th, 2020

When it comes to how the fossil fuel industry wields its money in Congress, there are two core theories. One is the “influence” hypothesis, which is the idea that corporations donate to a congressional campaign in hopes that the candidate will then vote in their favor. The other is the “investment” approach, which suggests that corporate donors don’t seek to change how a person votes, but instead use their money to support those who already vote in their favor.

big oil influence

By Climate Denier Roundup

A straightforward study published in PNAS on Monday found it’s usually the latter, with the industry increasing donations to politicians who vote in its favor. The study took 28 years of campaign contribution data representing 14 pairs of election cycles from 1990 to 2018 and compared that to the League of Conservation Voters scorecards of congressional votes either in favor or rejection of environmental policies.

Researchers found that “for every additional 10% of congressional votes against the environment in 2014, a legislator would receive an additional $5,400 in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies in 2016.” Overall, “on average, every 10% decrease in LCV score in one election cycle predicted an additional $1,700 in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies in the following election cycle.”

On the other hand, in only two of the 14 cases did past donations influence future votes, with “the strongest relationship in favor of the influence hypothesis shows that, for every $10,000 received in contributions in 2004, a legislator would be expected to vote against environmental policies an additional 1% of the time in 2006.”

Seems pretty conclusive that the industry uses its money to reward those who vote in its favor, as opposed to buying off those who are skeptical. That makes sense. It’s obviously going to take a lot more money to change someone’s mind than to simply reward someone who already agrees with you.

The study does mention that the Citizens United decision, which opened up elections to unlimited corporate spending, plays a role here. First, the amount oil and gas companies have contributed to candidates has more than doubled since 2010, from $35 million to $84 million. And, as the study notes, “while the absolute value of these contributions may seem relatively small, the doubling is noteworthy because it occurred in conjunction with the allowance of unlimited election spending by corporations” through Super PACs.

The investment hypothesis appears to hold fast for individual contributions, but this leaves the door wide open for the influence hypothesis to apply to Super PACs, which exist explicitly to get particular candidates elected. And those groups are certainly dropping more than a measly $84 million on elections: the super PAC the Koch network set up in 2018 came as an addition to the $400 million the Koch’s already planned to spend on politics and policy during that election cycle.

Still though, it’s interesting to see that the fossil fuel industry isn’t just straight up buying elections. Instead, it’s just buying re-elections!

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

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