Ideologically Sophisticated Donors: Which Candidates Do Individual Contributors Finance?

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Ideologically Sophisticated Donors: Which Candidates Do Individual Contributors Finance?”:

If nothing else, the 2016 presidential election has shown that Americans are deeply distrustful of big money, lobbyists, and a corrupt electoral system. The common refrain is that people only donate to political campaigns because they expect quid-pro-quo favors or access, or are simply partisan boosters trying to solidify political party power.

In fact, our research of campaign donations in the 2012 U.S. Senate race shows that donors are more sophisticated and thoughtful about where their dollars go than is commonly thought. The downside is that the way they donate incentivizes politicians to follow the money in their voting patterns.

All this matters because individual donors are the single largest source of campaign financing for congressional members, with almost half of their donations going to out-of-state candidates. So we set out to find out what motivates them to give, and if they do donate, how they decide how much to give.

We surveyed over 2800 in- and out-of-state donors to the 2012 Senate elections about several issues, including donors’ preferences on a range of policy issues. We then combined these responses with Federal Election Committee (FEC) data on contributors’ professions and donating behavior, along with congressional data on Senators’ roll call votes, committee assignments, and campaign behavior by challengers.

Three major findings emerge.

First, donors are more likely to give to a senator when the senator’s roll calls match a donor’s policy preferences.  This is true whether or not the donor and incumbent are in the same party or reside in the same state.  Put another way: donors are discerning in terms of the incumbent’s policy record and how it relates to their own preferences, shaking the presumption that people donate to their party (in order to shore up power) rather than to an individual candidate.

Second, donors are more likely to contribute to members who serve on committees that handle matters relevant to their profession, yet this decision does not appear to be motivated by expectations of special access to the members or specific legislative favors.  Instead, the donors give to members who represent their preferences on matters relevant to the profession or industry.

Finally, once someone decides to give, the amount is less determined by the legislator’s voting record and much more by things particular to the donor, especially the donor’s income.  In other words, while legislators affect the number of donations through their roll call and committee behavior, their legislative track record does not seem to have much impact on the size of the contributions.

So all is good, right? Donors are purer than we thought, acting less out of blinded party loyalty and individual self-interest and more out of genuine policy concern.   Ah, not so fast.  Politicians know that donors are paying attention to their votes.  So they are deeply incentivized to alter their voting record to match their donor’s policy preferences. Taken together, these findings suggest that incumbents have significant fundraising incentives to alter their legislative behavior to cater to individual donors’ policy preferences.

About the Authors: Michael J. Barber is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. Brandice Canes-Wrone is the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.   Sharece Thrower is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Their article ”Ideologically Sophisticated Donors: Which Candidates Do Individual Contributors Finance?” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is currently available for Early View.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.