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Grade 9-12
,
Lesson

Campaign Finance

Updated: September 9 2016,
Author: C3 Teachers

Compelling Question:

In addressing the compelling question "Does money matter in political campaigns?" students work through a series of supporting questions, formative performance tasks, and featured sources in order to construct an argument with evidence while acknowledge competing perspectives.

Introduction

This inquiry leads students through an investigation of campaign finance by examining election costs, expenditures, and the complex relationships between candidates and political-action committees. By investigating the compelling question “Does money matter in political campaigns?” students dissect contemporary political campaigns in order to assess whether or not campaign-finance reform should take place. In investigating contemporary evidence on campaigns and campaign finance, students develop an understanding of who is funding political campaigns and evaluate the extent to which campaign funding is problematic.

NOTE: This inquiry is expected to take five to eight 40-minute class periods. The inquiry time frame could expand if teachers think their students need additional instructional experiences (i.e., supporting questions, formative performance tasks, and featured sources). Teachers are encouraged to adapt the inquiries in order to meet the needs and interests of their particular students. Resources can also be modified as necessary to meet individualized education programs (IEPs) or Section 504 Plans for students with disabilities.

This inquiry was created by C3 Teachers and is also available on the C3 Teachers website.  Source: "Campaign Finance Inquiry,” C3 Teachers, http://www.c3teachers.org/inquiries/campaign-finance/ , CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze correspondence between political parties and corporations/CEOs to determine if funding is tied to political favors.
  • List how much money members of Congress spent on their last campaigns.
  • Write 1–2 paragraphs explaining the ways that individuals and companies can donate to political candidates.
  • Create a graphic organizer that defines super PACs and explains their role in political campaigns.
  • Write a claim with evidence that answers the question, “Should the government limit contributions to political campaigns?”
  • Construct an argument that addresses the compelling question using specific claims and relevant evidence from contemporary sources while acknowledging competing perspectives.
     

Process

  1. Staging the Compelling Question: To stage the compelling question, students analyze a sampler of political correspondence between the two major United States political parties and their financiers. Teachers should give students time to look through and read the documents and then initiate a class discussion based on the information in the letters. Teachers could prompt students by asking basic questions such as “Who are the political parties writing about?” “What do both sides hope to get out of the agreement?” and “Is the funding tied to favors?” During this staging exercise, students should consider the complex nature of political campaigns and finance.
     
  2. Supporting Question 1: The first supporting question—“How much does it cost to become a member of Congress?”—helps students establish a basic understanding of the overall cost of a congressional campaign. The formative performance task asks students to list how much money House and Senate members from at least five different districts and/or states spent on their campaigns. Students should use the first featured source, Congress’s online database, to locate House and Senate members from across different districts and states. Next, students work with the second featured source, the interactive campaign-finance map from the Federal Election Commission, to find each of the legislators they chose and to learn about his or her campaign spending. Students are also encouraged to seek additional sources through research.
     
  3. Supporting Question 2: For the second supporting question—“Where do politicians get their campaign contributions?”—students build on their knowledge of campaign finance by investigating who makes campaign contributions. The formative performance task asks students to write 1–2 paragraphs explaining the various ways that individuals and companies can donate to political candidates and their campaigns. The first featured source is an interactive guide from the New York Times, which explains how people can donate and the different amounts of money that people and corporations can contribute to political campaigns. The second featured source is an interactive website on congressional campaigns by OpenSecrets.org, which shows who donated money to each congressional member according to the Federal Election Commission records. The final featured source is a video from the Colbert Report in which Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, explains how PACs work.
     
  4. Supporting Question 3: By answering the third supporting question—“How do super PACs play a role in political campaigns?”—students analyze the recent growth in super PACs and examine the role they play in funding political campaigns. The first featured source is a brief video from Take Part that explains what a super PAC is. The second featured source, a short clip from C-SPAN, presents the ruling in Citizens United and how that case has affected the development of super PACs. The last featured source is an article from Columbia Law Magazine that discusses the history of campaign finance, the Citizens United ruling, and the pervasiveness of super PACs. In the formative performance task, students should use these sources to create a graphic organizer that defines super PACs and explains their role in political campaigns.
     
  5. Supporting Question 4: Having examined the various ways in which politicians can fund their campaigns, students are asked to consider the final supporting question—“Should the government limit contributions to political campaigns?” The formative performance task requires students to write an evidence-based claim that addresses the supporting question. The first featured source is a short video that provides students with a history of campaign-finance reform and the problems the Federal Election Committee has encountered in regulating campaign finance. The second featured source is another video from the Colbert Report in which Stephen Colbert, with the help of former federal election commissioner Trevor Potter, forms a shell corporation in order to keep his donors’ identities private. The final featured source is a set of essays from Freakonomics. The first essay is from a former economic adviser to Democratic party candidates in which he discusses the role of contributions in determining elections. The second essay is from an economics professor who uses a repeated-trial hypothesis to argue that election outcomes have very little to do with the money spent during the campaign.
     
  6. Summative Performance Task: At this point in the inquiry, students have examined the cost and finance of political campaigns as well as the arguments for and against limiting who can contribute to them. Students should be expected to demonstrate the breadth of their understandings and their abilities to use evidence from multiple sources to support their distinct claims. In this task, students construct an evidence-based argument responding to the compelling question “Does money matter in political campaigns?” It is important to note that students’ arguments could take a variety of forms, including a detailed outline, poster, or essay. Students’ arguments likely will vary, but could include any of the following:

    • Money does matter in political campaigns because, without campaign-finance reform, corporations and the wealthy become extremely influential in getting candidates elected.
       
    • Money does not matter in political campaigns because money alone cannot get a candidate elected.
       
    • Money does matter in political campaigns because, even in state elections, the amount of money influencing voters from out-of-state parties is increasing.
       
    • Money does not matter in political campaigns because the groups that directly or indirectly contribute to a politician do so because that politician represents an ideology that is supported by them, placing the influence on the issues, not the politician.

Conclusion

See the Summative Performance task above.

Extension Activity

Summative Performance Task Extension:
Students could extend these arguments by creating a public service announcement that addresses campaign finance and argues for or against limiting who can contribute to political campaigns. The public service announcements could take the form of a video, radio segment, or class skit.

Taking Informed Action:
Students have the opportunity to Take Informed Action by researching current political campaign ads to understand who is funding each ad and whether the ad is in support of the candidate or against the candidate’s opponent. Students then assess the extent to which candidates (once elected) vote in favor of those who have funded them. Lastly, students can act by using assorted media platforms to create a presentation that conveys students’ views about campaign-finance reform.

  • UNDERSTAND: Research five current political campaign ads, noting who is funding each ad and whether the ad is in support of a candidate or against the candidate’s opponent.
     
  • ASSESS: Determine the extent to which candidates (once elected) vote in favor of those who have funded them.
     
  • ACT: Using assorted media platforms, create a presentation that conveys students’ views about campaign-finance reform.
     

Assessment

Does money matter in political campaigns? Construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, poster, essay) that addresses the compelling question using specific claims and relevant evidence from contemporary sources while acknowledging competing perspectives.

Subjects:
Civics/Government