Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Plum Line: Giving Money (and a Question for Political Scientists)

Over at Plum Line, I reprise an argument I've made over here before: that the worst place to give your money if you want to affect the outcomes of campaigns is in presidential general elections. Still, in my view at least, a very important message.

Which brings up a question. Hey, political scientists! Especially those of you who study US politics and campaigns and elections. If you give money to candidates, where do you put your money? Do any of you give to presidential candidates for the general election? It seems to me that this is something on which the research implications for political action are absolutely clear: do you all follow them?


  1. Don't give money.
    The wife cuts the occassional check to Human Rights Campaign.
    Pre-tenure, there's the whole "covering my ass in case some blowhard goes on another liberal professors are evil rampage and publishes all our contributions."
    Of course, <$200 and I'd still be safe there. But, really, it's following the logic you lay out: at my level of money, I'm not going to affect a damn thing. So, there's no point in wasting the money.

  2. Alas, there's no GiveWell for political giving. Here are some guidelines, though:

    1) Give it to state legislative races, or to organizations (like the DLCC/RLCC or state parties) that are focused on state legislative races. These get more intentional, so the marginal dollar will make more impact than races of other types. Moreover, most domestic policy is implemented in some way at the state level, and that's even before you get to questions of redistricting.

    2) Give to (high quality) challengers rather than incumbents. Recent research on judicial elections ( suggests that while there are diminishing marginal returns to campaign spending for both, they diminish more quickly for incumbents. And aside from diminishing returns to spending, the incumbents can probably have an easier time than the challengers of raising money from others.

    3) Give to ideological PACs and other political organizations that focus on an issue you care about. They're going to be able to survey the field of opportunities more effectively than you and find prime targets to spend your money to advance your issues.

    Sadly, though, the factors that predict campaign contribution allocations across the myriad giving opportunities is something political science knows all too little about. The ANES doesn't ask in great detail about where your campaign contributions go. While the questions on the CCES are better (they ask about which offices the donors gave to, and how much in total), there's still relatively little detail about who the survey respondents are giving to and how much.

  3. It seems worth it to me to give $5 or even $1 to the Obama campaign. It marginally helps the campaign be able to tout itself as grassroots, having a high number of donors giving small amounts. Basically, give at least something to the presidential candidate of your choice, but then spend the rest of your contributions on stuff that Kevin mentions above.

    On a more general level, I wish the Democrats became more innovative in finding ways to ask large groups of disengaged but sympathetic interest groups or demographics to give merely $1 per person (a fraction of the cost of one drink). Going after college kids or minority groups in certain areas, asking for a really small donation -- that can add up faster than one imagines and have a significant effect, since such a small percentage of the population currently donates anything. And even if it didn't have an overwhelming material effect, it could be symbolically and rhetorically powerful.

  4. Doesn't the fact that the "payoff" from the result of the presidential election is orders of magnitude larger than any individual House or Senate race make a difference in that analysis?

    To be sure, control of the House or Senate matters a lot, and is within shouting difference of the importance of the presidency. That said, the odds are long that a contribution to an individual House or Senate race will shift control of the chamber, and that discount has to be taken into account when making comparisons with the presidential race.

    Personally: I max out on the presidential race. In House and Senate races I contribute in close races with a predisposition toward voting for potentially highly visible "thought leaders."


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