I am asking about the United States, but this could apply to any democratic country as well. Coming from academic biological sciences, much of our finding comes from institutions like the NIH/DOD/NSF etc. Simplistically this creates an environment where a person or lab that has an idea that requires funding will propose their work in a grant and semi-anonymously submit that to a funding institution. These institutions will then classify the proposal and bin it with other proposals within a similar area of focus. Then a few times each year experts in these areas of focus will convene and compare the proposals and disburse funding to the 'best' grants. The idea is that this granting system helps to fund the most robust projects while limiting any conflicts of interest researchers might have.

So I wonder why the method of political funding is so different from academia. Why is it the case that political candidates are funded by private companies rather than some type of political NIH. I realize taxpayer cost may be a significant factor in this decision, but it seems that while academia puts significant effort into avoiding personal bias and conflicts of interest, politics invites it.

So what is the logic behind the system of political funding in the united states, specifically in regards to why it is advantageous for candidates to receive funding directly from companies which could benefit from their successful bid for office?

  • 2
    Um... what do you mean "not contained"? fec.gov/info/checkoff.htm . Most candidates in US choose to forego that route because private funding raises more money.
    – user4012
    Mar 16, 2017 at 16:20
  • 1
    I figure it's because no matter what, candidates will get money from special interests. If you make it legal, you can call that 'donations'. Whereas if we only did public funding, we'd have to call all of those 'bribes'. :)
    – user1530
    Mar 16, 2017 at 16:22
  • @blip - you can't make it illegal as it would likely be unconstitutional under 1st Amendment. (this combined with my 1st comment can get someone started on writing the answer I'm too lazy/busy to write)
    – user4012
    Mar 16, 2017 at 16:23
  • Possible duplicate of this question
    – lazarusL
    Mar 16, 2017 at 16:45
  • @lazarusL I don't think its a duplicate. That question seems to be the reverse... sort of Mar 16, 2017 at 17:02

3 Answers 3


The first thing to realize here is that even in academia, not all studies are funded directly by the public sector. Private corporations frequently fund studies that are of interest to them. Results of such studies may bring up conflict of interest questions down the road, but most importantly the private options is a viable alternative.

(from here on I'm just going to assume US)

Political campaigns can also go both ways. If a campaign does not want to raise funds from private donors they can opt to take public funds from the FEC. These public funds are fed by the optional $3 tax user4012 mentioned in his comment. In reality though, most candidates will not choose this because it ends up being less money overall

[Public funding] also placed limits on campaign spending by Presidential nominees who receive public money and a ban on all private contributions to them.

Private funds, unlike public funds, are virtually limitless and carry much fewer restrictions. The bottom line is that its easier to raise more money with private funds than with public funds.

There is also a legal issue with banning private funds from political elections. The defining case for this is Citizens United V FEC. Simply put, Citizens United stated that money, especially in the form of political contributions, is a form of speech. Since the first amendment prohibits restrictions on speech by the government, the government is not allowed to restrict political contributions. So by banning private funding you would be banning a form of speech... a big no no in the US.

  • This is incorrect in its characterization of what Citizens United said. Citizens United did not affect political contributions at all, in any way. It said that corporations could be spend their money on political advertisements that mentioned specific candidates. Prior to that, those advertisements were prohibited from mentioning specific candidates.
    – Brythan
    Mar 16, 2017 at 18:03
  • @Brythan From the majoirty opinion: "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." You are correct that the technicalities of the case involved companies mentioning specific candidates in ads, but the broader implications of the ruling means that (1) political contributions are speech, (2) since you can't restrict speech, you can't really restrict political contributions and (3) Mitt Romney's favorite, Corporations are people too (for these purpose). Mar 16, 2017 at 19:13
  • If political contributions were speech, then contribution limits would be unconstitutional. But they aren't. That could change, but under current law and precedent, political contribution limits are legal. That's why SuperPACs exist, because they allow certain kinds of activity that would be restricted if done through the campaign.
    – Brythan
    Mar 16, 2017 at 20:18
  • @Brythan That is incorrect. There are limitations to speech. IE if you make a verbal threat to the president the federal government will go after you, even though that seems to be directly opposed to free speech. Mar 16, 2017 at 20:25
  • But will they allow you to make exactly $1000 worth of threats against the president and then stop you? No. Threats aren't "limited" speech--they aren't considered to be speech that is free.
    – Brythan
    Mar 16, 2017 at 20:40

I wasn't able to find a clear statement by a policy official explaining why this is the case. However, research funding and political funding operate in entirely different environments, so it likely never occurred to anyone that they should be the same. Below I'll highlight a few core differences and how they relate to funding.


In academic research there are experts who can help determine what research should be funded. There is an inter-subjective nature here, in that researchers in the same broad discipline should agree (in a rough sense) about what research is important and what isn't.

Political funding doesn't share this feature. Although there are experts in politics (political scientists, of which I am one) there is no way we could evaluate what a "good" candidate or policy is. It is up to the citizens of this country to determine what candidates or policies they support, and one way they do this is by contributing funds to the candidates (or other groups) of their choice.

Companies represent the interest of (some set) of citizens. So it is reasonable that they can give their resources to a candidate who will enact a policy in their interest. The same goes for other private interest groups. There really is no "common" interest - every interest corresponds to some subset of citizens.

Conflict of Interest

There is a conflict of interest present in asking the government to selectively fund candidates. Who would choose who to fund? How do you ensure that they are not influenced by their bosses (the President is an elected official and many high ranking positions are appointees, why do you think they would be objective? Why would Congress pass laws that are not in the interest of the majority party?).

Additionally, no matter who the winner of an election would be under this system, there would always be the criticism that other candidates that would have represented the interest of citizens better were not elected only because of funding differences. It's best to leave the government out of these decisions to avoid a conflict of interest.

This conflict isn't present in academic funding (at least not the same way).


Why is it the case that political candidates are funded by private companies

They aren't. There is no legal way for a corporation to donate money to a political candidate. There are two things that a corporation can do to help a candidate.


Political Action Committees (PACs) can donate to candidates. They are often associated with businesses, but donations have to be collected from individuals. Each individual can only donate so much to each PAC.

Businesses can subsidize their associated PACs by providing office space or personnel. They can't subsidize donations though. All money donated to candidates has to be raised from personal contributions.


Despite the name, a SuperPAC is not a PAC. A SuperPAC is a non-profit corporation that can run advertisements endorsing or supporting a candidate. They can also do general electioneering support, like encouraging people to vote. Other corporations and individuals can donate to these in unlimited fashion. Those donations are anonymous under current law. They are not allowed to contribute to candidates or any organizations that can contribute to candidates. Nor are they allowed to coordinate with campaigns or parties.

The Citizens United decision overturned previous rules that prevented such corporations from talking about candidates directly. This has caused an expansion in such organizations. They often finance negative ads about candidates.

Public finance

rather than some type of political NIH

Who gets financed? When? For example, to get on the ballot, candidates need to collect signatures. Should that operation be public financed? If not, can only candidates who can afford to pay out of their own finances or who can devote themselves full time to collecting signatures run? Or candidates need a large volunteer network supporting them.

If we publicly finance signature collection, then corrupt individuals could hire signature collectors and get a different service.

It is more common to add public financing to the existing system. So people would fund things in the normal way and then agree to certain limitations in exchange for public funding. This is how presidential funding worked until 2008, when Barack Obama stopped using it. Mitt Romney would join Obama in 2012. I don't think that Donald Trump used public financing in 2016, and Hillary Clinton definitely didn't.

The current system

Under the current system, individuals finance campaigns either directly or indirectly. Directly by contributing to the campaign itself. Indirectly by giving money to PACs or party organizations which can donate to candidates. Candidate campaigns can also donate to other campaigns.

Why is this better? Rather than give every candidate the same amount of money (or have a small group of elites selected by the government choose candidates), this gives each person the same opportunity to find supporters.

  • Not sure your last paragraph adds up. In a way we still do have a 'small group of elitists' picking candidates...this is what the two major parties tend to do. Also, it's not clear how 'same opportunity to find supporters' is better than 'give each candidate the same amount of money'. The opposite can also be easily argued: that it compels candidates to only seek out the support of those with money (and thereby ignoring those that don't have money).
    – user1530
    Mar 16, 2017 at 20:45

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