Late at night, a good Samaritan happens upon an intoxicated man crawling under a streetlight, studying the ground. The drunkard says that he is looking for his keys, and our helpful bystander joins the search. After a few minutes, the helper asks, “Are you sure this is where you dropped them?” “No,” says the drunk, “I probably dropped them by the bar down the road. But the light’s much better here.”
The phenomenon of the drunkard’s search, often attributed to Abraham Kaplan, afflicts much empirical inquiry. Researchers seeking quantitative rigor too often head for the available data, fire up STATA, and only as an afterthought offer a few generic caveats about the limitations of the data for the topic at hand.
Campaign finance analysis is not immune from this problem. In reading some recent studies over the weekend, I noticed a few recurring lapses.
Consider the evaluation of electoral spending by entities other than candidates and parties: “outside” spending, for short. Frequently, studies look to data from the Federal Election Commission (and equivalent state sources) to track the rise of independent expenditures since blockbuster Supreme Court cases like Citizens United, which allowed corporations (and, by logical extension, other non-affiliated groups) to engage in such activity without limits.