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If Hillary Clinton gets serious about money in politics, here’s why it would be a historical aberration

Hillary Clinton in New York City.
Hillary Clinton in New York City.
JStone / Shutterstock.com

Hillary Clinton has put forward a plan for campaign finance reform. But how much will she focus on it? Will she campaign hard on her proposals? Or will they just be one of many policies in a long list?

One challenge for Clinton: If she runs on the claim that the system is corrupt and broken, how does that square with the fact that her party has been in the White House since 2009?

To get a historical handle on this question, I used data from the Manifesto Project, which codes party platforms on a number of topics, including "corruption," going back to 1956. I found that if Clinton and her fellow Democrats push hard on money in politics issues, it would be a bit unusual from a historical perspective.

On the two occasions when Democrats had been in the White House for eight years (1968 and 2000), corruption issues barely got mentioned at all in the party platform. By contrast, the longer Democrats have been out of office, the more they tend to bring up corruption-related issues in their party platforms.

Attention to corruption in party platforms

(Manifesto Project/graphic by Lee Drutman)

The Manifesto Project describes the category "political corruption" as involving: "Need to eliminate political corruption and associated abuses of political and/or bureaucratic power. Need to abolish clientelist structures and practices." The measure here is "the share of quasi-sentences in the respective category calculated as a fraction of the overall number of allocated codes per document." (So basically, the share of the document devoted to the issue.)

The fact that mentions of corruption decrease in proportion to incumbency kind of makes sense, since it's easier to lodge allegations of corruption against the party in power than the party out of power. For example, in 1960, when Democrats had been out of office for eight years, the platform included the following sentence: "We shall reform the processes of government in all branches — executive, legislative, and judicial. We will clean out corruption and conflicts of interest, and improve government services."

That exact phrasing was also in the 1964 Democratic Party platform. By 1968, after two Democratic terms in the White House, that phrase was gone from the platform. But by 1976, when Jimmy Carter was promising to give America "A Government as Good as Its People," the platform included the promise that "We will eliminate bribery and other corrupt practices."

In 2008, after again being out of office for eight years, Democrats were again highlighting political reform: The fourth and final section of the platform was titled "Renewing American Democracy." Among other things, the party promised: "We will close the revolving door that has allowed people to use their position in the Administration as a stepping-stone to further their lobbying careers. We support campaign finance reform to reduce the influence of moneyed special interests, including public financing of campaigns combined with free television and radio time. We will have the wisdom to put the public interest above special interests." In 2012, after a term in office, the relative attention to corruption issues in the Democratic platform declined.

Obviously this is not a huge effect, and it's possible to tell year-specific stories. But the trend is still intriguing.

Among Republican platforms, there's no relationship between incumbency and salience of corruption issues. I don't have a great theory as to why the relationship would exist for Democrats but not Republicans. But it is worth noting that the one time Republicans had been in office for 12 years (1992), the party did focus more on corruption issues.

Obviously, presidential platforms are just one measure of a party's attention to these issues, and it's true that nominees often ignore or fail to deliver on platforms in office. Still, platforms do serve as guiding documents and justifications for policy changes, and are a reflection of consensus priorities among competing groups within the party.

At the very least, these data points give us some historical context: If Hillary Clinton focuses on issues of political corruption, she'd be doing something no modern Democratic candidate has done following eight years of a Democrat in the White House.