Andrew Jensen and David Magleby, Department of Political Science
Politics is a contentious business. When candidates and parties are not fighting each other to win elections, they fight among themselves for nominations and for their competing visions of platform and policy. This intraparty tension has been a prominent feature of the 2016 election as progressivism fought centrism in the Democratic party and conservatism struggled with populism. While primary battles can be vicious, do separate factions unite to support their party’s candidate in the general election or are they more likely to withhold their support? While the literature has studied this phenomenon amongst voters, no study has examined divisiveness among the donor class. Are donors who gave to a losing candidate in the primary, less likely to give again in the general election? Or, do donors not care about who the candidate is and only that their preferred party win? I found evidence that suggests they are less likely and that divisiveness is a real phenomenon.
One of the reasons that this question has never been studied before is a lack of data on campaign donors, particularly small donors who give less than $200 in an election cycle. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) publishes contributions of all donors except these small donors, who are a majority of contributors. Drs. Magleby, Goodliffe, and Olson have collected data on these donors in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns for a forthcoming book.
I used these surveys of donors provided by the Obama and McCain campaigns in 2008, and the Romney campaign in 2012 to construct a binary index of support for primary candidates that measures whether a donor supported the eventual nominee or one of the losers. If a donor gave to both, they are counted as supported the candidate to whom they originally gave. Using this index, I then created several models to measure the support of the final candidate. The first simply measures the percent that returned to give again to their party’s candidate in the general election, weighted by the demographics of that candidate’s donor base. The second measures the policy preferences between donors of the winning and losing candidates to see if these donors are motivated by policy or personal preferences. Finally, the third is a probit model that compares the marginal likelihood of donating to the nominee based on supporting that nominee in the primary.
All three models provide evidence that divisiveness exists among the donor class. Donors gave again to the nominee at much higher rates if they gave to the nominee in the primary than if they gave to the nominee’s opponents. Over 97% of Romney donors gave again compared to only 64.1% of his competitor’s donors. This difference was also stark among McCain donors (80.8% to 60.7%). A smaller, but still significant, gap existed in Obama donors (84.5% to 79.8%).
Donors also valued the qualities between their candidates significantly donors. Obama donors were more likely to be motivated by the historicity of the election and by Obama as a role model, and less motivated by his experience than were the donors to his primary rivals. McCain supporters on the other hand were motivated by his experience than by his judgment. Romney donors were more likely to value experience and less likely to value international experience than were the donors to nomination losers. Donors to the winner in the nomination process were motivated by different factors than donors to losing nomination candidates.
The final model gave the best evidence of divisiveness. Controlling for a wide array of demographics and political preferences, original donors to the nominee were significantly more likely to give again in the general than other donors. The differences are stark. At the margin, Obama donors were 75% likely to give again compared to only 34% of donors to other candidates. For McCain, the difference was smaller (76% to 69%), but Romney’s was also large (57% to 38%).
There is clear evidence that donors to the nomination winner behave differently than donors to nomination losers. Original donors are more likely to donate again in the general election even controlling for demographics, partisanship, whether they have given to a presidential campaign before, and whether they contributed to congressional candidates or other campaigns that cycle. While there are team players that give to their party nominee no matter who wins, there are also donors that only will give to a particular candidate. It is to be expected that certain groups may be more motivated by certain candidates, especially if they identify strongly with them (Mormons for Romney, Millennials for Obama, etc.). More surprising is that divisiveness exists even among strongly partisan donors that give to multiple campaigns. Among first-time and experienced donors, divisiveness plays a key role in determining contributions to general election candidates.
Divisiveness exists among donors to presidential campaigns. This finding suggests that hard fought and bitter campaigns have general election consequences and that unifying the party should be a priority for the nominee. More work must be done to further explore divisiveness. Most helpful would be surveys that ask donors during the primaries how they feel about the candidates and then measuring their contributions to the general election.