StudentsFirst Is Very Bipartisan In Its Giving. And That’s Weird.

"Confused" (61/365)Yesterday, in something of a scoop, Alexander Russo published StudentsFirst’s candidate spending in the 2012 election cycle. Overall, 72% of campaigns supported were Republican, and those campaigns received about 58% of SF spending.

It’s not news that StudentsFirst’s political activity is Republican-leaning, so if anything the real news is that their spending is somewhat more bipartisan than are their endorsements.

For the reasons Alexander provides, campaign expenditures aren’t an ideal way to measure partisanship. As I wrote in the comments, though, being thoroughly bipartisan wouldn’t actually make the StudentsFirst agenda look more credible because it’s hard to come up with a set of weighted policy priorities that both 1) is plausible and 2) implies you should be voting for Democrats and Republicans each about half of the time.

StudentsFirst VP Eric Lerum took issue with my logic on Twitter. I don’t understand all of his objections – what does it mean to say that my “comment seems to validate 2-party rule”? – but it’s certainly possible I was unclear, so here’s some elaboration.

First, to be clear, it’s not impossible to come up with a coherent political agenda that implies that you should vote for Republicans and Democrats in approximately equal numbers.

It is, however, almost impossible to come up with such an agenda that is also plausible.

The first thing to remember is that despite bipartisanship’s rhetorical popularity, very few voters actually swing back and forth between the two parties. And better informed voters tend to be more partisan. This is all prima facie evidence that coherent, plausible political agendas should be associated with heavily partisan activity.

This isn’t because there aren’t some causes – even good ones – that can find modest support on both sides of the aisle. It’s because bipartisan issues are typically low-salience politically. After all, high-salience issues either must represent a broad consensus (in which case endorsements and donations and the like are irrelevant) or they must be divisive (in which case parties will organize at least partially around them).

In other words, if the moderate number of closely-related policies StudentsFirst supports have some bipartisan support, that is possible precisely because most voters don’t care about them very much.

But should voters care more about the StudentsFirst agenda? Is it plausible that the SF agenda is comprehensive enough to justify disregarding all of the other issues that influence partisan identification?

It’s hard to see why. Even if you think SF’s agenda is sound, it’s not credible that it should dominate our voting decisions. It’s unlikely that I should care that much more about a handful of K-12 education policies than I do about war, tax rates, the economy, health care, gun control, immigration, or the environment, for example. And I’m a teacher!

Of course, some individuals at StudentsFirst may very well believe that those issues really are that important. In fact, I’m inclined to believe that they do. As a friend of mine likes to say: America’s a big country, so if you want to hire people to advance your agenda you’ll probably be able to find plenty of true believers to fill out the staff.

Most voters, however, would look at StudentsFirst’s campaign spending – which at first glance appears to allocate contributions as if by coin toss – and conclude that the StudentsFirst agenda doesn’t make a lot of sense. They’d probably be right.

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