Political donors prize party loyalty, disfavor bipartisanship

Elephant and donkey turned away from each other
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Frequent campaign donors prefer congressional candidates who toe the party line to those who promote extreme views or make bipartisan appeals, according to a new study co-authored by Yale political scientist Gregory Huber.

The study, published in the June 2020 issue of the journal Political Behavior, casts doubt on a widely held assumption that frequent donors push candidates to adopt increasingly extreme policy positions. Huber and co-author Andrew Gooch, an assistant professor of political science at LaSalle University, found that individuals who regularly donate to congressional campaigns are less likely to support candidates who deviate from their party’s norms in any ideological direction.

The donor bases of both major parties seem to reward candidates who present themselves as typical Democrats or Republicans,” said Huber, the Forst Family Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “They disfavor candidates who adopt more extreme positions on issues like taxes, abortion, and gun control. At the same time, they show even greater dissatisfaction toward candidates who adopt positions that the other party proposes.”

The researchers performed a novel survey experiment targeted at a representative sample of 24,000 “habitual donors” — individuals who make several contributions totaling thousands of dollars during every national election cycle.

The donors were invited to take an online survey that presented vignettes of hypothetical congressional candidates from their respective parties. Each vignette described a candidate’s positions on three issues randomly selected from the six policy areas: federal income taxes, Social Security, abortion, welfare, concealed handguns, and the conflict with ISIS. The candidate’s positions on two of the three issues aligned with their party’s prevailing view. On the third issue, however, candidates were either assigned another party-consistent position, an ideologically extreme stance, or a bipartisan view.

For example, on the issue of gun rights, a party-aligned Democratic candidate espoused support for laws prohibiting private citizens from carrying concealed handguns. The extremely liberal view called for a constitutional amendment permitting the confiscation of privately owned handguns. A candidate with a standard conservative position supported allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit. The extremely conservative view called for requiring teachers and university professors to carry concealed handguns for public safety. Candidates assigned a bipartisan position would adopt the more moderate views of the other party, not the most extreme.

Respondents were presented vignettes of candidates running in both open-seat primaries and the general election. They were randomly informed of the party’s chances for victory in the general election. In both scenarios, respondents were asked whether they were likely to vote for the candidate and contribute to them if they lived within or outside their district. 

The researchers found that respondents were less likely to donate to candidates whose position on the third issue — the one that could stray from party norms — was extreme or aligned with the opposing party. The effect of the candidate’s unconventional position on donors was most pronounced in the primary-election context.

Researchers performed an identical experiment on a sample of 1,742 individuals representing ordinary citizens, who favored one party over another to varying degrees but were not frequent donors. It showed that the habitual donors were more sensitive than the general electorate to candidates’ issue positions. Candidates espousing bipartisan views performed the worst among both donors and the mass public.

Candidates clearly have incentives to avoid adopting extreme or bipartisan positions,” Huber said. “The fact that ordinary voters also punished the bipartisan candidates was interesting, given that people sometimes suppose that holding bipartisan views demonstrates independence and leadership. It appears that if you generally like Republicans, then you want the party’s candidate to sound and act like a Republican.” 

From 2015 to 2018, Gooch served as a postdoctoral associate at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies and the Center for the Study of American Politics, where Huber is a resident fellow and associate director, respectively.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324