Working Papers

“Strategic Giving to the Extreme: Experimental Evidence on the Motivations of Verified Midterm Donors.” With Joshua Clinton and Gregory Huber. Current draft available by request.

The question of whether political donors are primarily expressive or strategic has animated scholars because of the different incentives that these behaviors create for candidates. Despite a vast literature, the answer has proven elusive due to the confounded features of races, donors, and candidates in observational data and the difficulty of capturing the donation choice problem in straightforward survey questions. To isolate key strategic and expressive factors while re-creating the multidimensional dynamics of contribution decisions, we administer a series of multifactorial experimental vignettes to 7,000 verified midterm donors. We find that strategic and candidate ideology considerations equally affect donors’ likelihood of contributing to same-party candidates. However, donors respond to candidate ideology in asymmetric ways that are inconsistent with expressive giving: candidates are harshly penalized for being more moderate than the donor, but not for being more extreme. This phenomenon is even more pronounced among extreme donors, who appear to prefer candidates more extreme than themselves to candidates who share their ideology. Moreover, self-reported motivations fail to translate into different responses to experimental treatments: donors who report caring most about candidates’ positions are no more affected by candidate ideology nor less affected by district lean than donors who report caring most about candidates’ chances of winning. Our results call into question the validity of self-reported donation motivations, and suggest that donors’ giving behavior supports extremist candidates more than previously thought.

“Everything in Moderation, Including Moderation: The Effect of Extremist Nominations on Campaign Fundraising.” Current draft available by request.

Are donors responsible for the election of extreme legislators? Fierce partisan polarization is one of the defining features of the contemporary U.S. Congress, and determining whether campaign contributions are the culprit is a first step in finding solutions for mitigation. Scholars have convincingly documented the relationship between candidates’ positions and their fundraising – with extreme candidates receiving greater contributions from individuals and moderates receiving more support from PACs – leading many to conclude that donors are to blame for the rise of polarization. However, this evidence is correlational due to the endogeneity of candidate positioning to metrics of success such as fundraising, so the observed relationship may not be driven by candidate positioning per se. Given donors’ and PACs’ stake in electoral outcomes, strategic considerations may weigh more heavily on their donation decisions than ideology. Using a regression discontinuity design, I estimate the effect of “as-if randomly” nominating an extremist over a moderate on general election fundraising success. Contrary to the expectations of existing research, I find no increase in individual contributions nor decrease in PAC contributions when the extremist is the nominee. A subgroup analysis by seat type similarly fails to detect any effect of nominating an extremist on campaign receipts even in races where it should be most apparent. These null results cast doubt on the causality of the relationship between candidates’ positions and their fundraising success, and call into question the stylized fact of ideology-motivated political donors.

Work in progress

“Competition and Free-Riding in Electoral Campaigns with Outside Spending.” With Brenton Kenkel.

“Campaign Positioning and Majority-Minority Differences in Legislative Representation.”