Archive for June, 2011

Heckle and Prosper

June 21, 2011 1 comment

The Washington Post recently published an article on money blurts which has also been discussed at The Monkey Cage and elsewhere. I’ve done some research on this topic, so I thought I would recycle a plot of Joe Wilson’s donors before and after his outburst.

The figure shows the ideology of Joe Wilson’s contributors leading up to and following his outburst during the President’s health care speech. Each point represents the ideology of an individual contributor (higher points are more conservative) and is scaled by donation amount. What I find striking about the figure is not so much the spike in contributions following the outburst but rather that a large percentage of his post-outburst donors were more conservative than anyone who had given to him before. Many of the far-right donors that Wilson activated were the same people who later made up the core of the Tea Party’s fundraising base.

The flip side is that Wilson’s Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, also received a substantial boost from small donors, prompted Miller to develop a national donor network centered on fundraising from the professional left. We take for granted that money blurts are strategic behavior. I find it more likely that these candidates are blurting out polarizing rhetoric for its own sake. The resulting floods of ideological money serve only to encourage partisan rhetoric. To quote fundraising superstar Alan Grayson, “There’s an audience — It’s clear that people want to hear the music, and I’ll keep singing.”

I’ve been researching the effect of small donors on elections and have found their influence to be highly polarizing (I’ll be presenting a paper on this research later this year at APSA). While the proportion of campaign dollars coming from donors giving in small amounts is somewhere in the range of 15 and 25 percent (depending on how one classifies a small donor), the influence of small money on electoral outcomes is augmented by the tendency to target  a select group of candidates. During the 2010 Midterms,  ten percent of candidates reined in over fifty percent of the funds from small donors.  A small donor network has become fashionable on the Hill and badge of honor on the campaign trail. Yet despite enjoying a reputation as protectors of democracy, small donors tend to be ideological warriors out to reward polarizing rhetoric and to punish bipartisanship.

Categories: Uncategorized

Measuring up the Republican Field

June 13, 2011 3 comments

(Co-written with Kevin Collins)

What will the field of candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination look like? Presidential primaries tend to highlight divisions within parties, and the press has focused on moderates versus conservatives, social conservatives versus business conservatives, party insiders versus Tea Party insurgents, electable candidates versus long shots.

Some commentators, notably Nate Silver in his visualization of the potential Republican field, have depicted these dimensions as orthogonal. Specifically, he graphically depicts candidates ideological placement, status as insiders, and chances of winning.  However, while Silver uses Intrade values as a measure of candidate chances, his placement of candidates on the other two dimensions is based on his judgment alone. Based on his judgment, these three dimensions appear to be unrelated to one another. However, drawing on data from federal and state campaign finance records, we can more reliably estimate both candidate ideology and reliance on large donors, which we take as a proxy measure of insider status. Based on this analysis, we show that these dimensions are in fact strongly correlated.

The figure below summarizes the 2012 Republican presidential field. The upper panel plots the proportion of funds raised from donations of $500 or less (including unitemized contributions) against candidate ideology. As is evident, more conservative candidates, particularly those affiliated with the tea party, raise a greater proportion of their funds from small donors. The circle sizes are proportional to the Intrade share prices for the respective candidates as of June 13th. The circles are colored coded based on candidacy status. Those who have officially announced their candidacy are red, those who have not yet announced are purple, and those that have decided not to run are green.

The bottom panel overlays two kernel densities drawn from the 2010 Election cycle. In red is the ideal point distribution of Republican candidates. This gives a sense of how the presidential candidates locate with respect to the party as a whole. In gray is the distribution of Republican donor ideal points, each weighted by the total amount donated during the 2010 Election cycle. This characterizes the fundraising landscape with respect to ideology.

The Republican Field: The upper panel plots the proportion of funds raised from donations of $500 or less (including unitemized contributions) against candidate ideology. The circle sizes are proportional to the Intrade share prices for the respective candidates as of June 13th. The circles are colored coded based on candidacy status. Those who have officially announced their candidacy are red, those who have not yet announced are purple, and those that have decided not to run are green. The bottom panel overlays two kernel densities drawn from the 2010 Election cycle. In red is the ideal point distribution of Republican candidates. This gives a sense of how the presidential candidates locate with respect to the party as a whole. In gray is the distribution of Republican donor ideal points, each weighted by the total amount donated during the 2010 Election cycle.

The idea underlying measuring the ideology of candidates from campaign finance records is relatively straightforward. Contributors are assumed to prefer ideologically proximate candidates (i.e., those who share their views). A model then conditions on the ideology-based research conducted by the millions of political donors to provide estimates of candidate ideology.

When we compare the measures with those created by Nate Silver (link), reprinted below, we find that the rankings are correlated but exhibit a few large discrepancies. Silver ranks Ron Paul among the most moderate candidates, whereas the donors place him on the far right. (Paul may technically agree with Democrats on several key issues but has his own reasons.) He identifies Santorum as the most conservative candidate in the field, but Santorum’s donors place him nearer the center of the Republican Party. In both cases, the candidates’ DW-NOMINATE score reflects his CFscore–that is, roll call voting records consistently place Paul on the far right and place Santorum somewhere in the interior wing of the party.

Mapping candidates in this way highlights what we gain from quantitative measures of ideology. Cultural issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage happen to be strongly correlated (a pattern confirmed by looking at who donates to ballot campaigns), but they take a back seat to explaining how ideological preferences map onto political behavior and outcomes. In the end, traditional left-right economic issues best explain how a member votes and which candidates donors support.

As a point of reference, we include in the figure past Republican presidents. One of the advantages of measuring ideology from contribution records is that both candidates and contributors are typically active across multiple election cycles, which facilitates more reliable across-time comparisons (see the discussion here). If they were running today, both Bush’s would locate to the left of the mean ideal point of the Republican Party, which has become steadily more conservative over the last three decades, whereas Reagan would be slightly to its right.

Candidate positions are typically stable but are subject to change, especially for candidates seeking to reinvent themselves when competing for a new office. This certainly describes Romney predicament. Romney’s ideal point shifts dramatically over the course of his political career. Romney began his career with a score of 0.59 during his failed 1994 senate bid against Edward Kennedy, adopted a centrist position while running for governor, bringing his score to 0.48, and has currently settled near the center of his party with a score of 0.78.

These data come from the most recent available campaign finance records for each candidate, which do not include any current presidential exploratory or candidate committees but do include state records (for current and former governors) and older records, when the person in question has been out of office for a substantial period of time. These variations in source data could potentially bias the measures in a number of ways. First, if candidates have shifted their ideology since their last campaign record, their previous donation pattern may not reflect their current ideology. For example, Newt Gingrich’s fundraising as a Member of Congress may not perfectly reflect his ideology today.

Second, states have different campaign disclosure thresholds than do the federal government. While the Federal Elections Commission reports the individual records of all donations made by any individual who donates to a candidate over $200 in total, this disclosure threshold is lower in most states. In MN and IN it is $100, and in UT it is $50.  Since small dollar donors tend to be more ideologically extreme than large dollar, access seeking donors, if state candidates are receiving substantial amounts of donations in between their state and the federal disclosure thresholds, these amounts could make them appear more ideologically extreme. However, since the candidates for whom state records are used are distributed roughly evenly across the space, these differences in disclosure thresholds may not be a significant source of bias here.

Our measure of proportion raised from small donors is also in part a function of campaign finance laws. This matters for past candidates for president who fundraised subject to the $1,000 limit on individual contributions in place prior to the implementation of the BCRA during the 2004 Elections. This discrepancy make past president look as though they raised slightly more funds in small amounts than they actually did.

Variation in campaign finance laws matters much more for governors turned presidential candidates. Pawlenty, Daniels, Perry and Huntsman campaigned for governor under state laws that foster very different fundraising environments. (We rely solely federal contribution records for Romney and Palin). Minnesota’s contribution limits favor fundraising from small donors whereas limits in Indiana, Texas and Utah have no limits on the amount an individual can donate to a candidate, thus favoring fundraising large amounts from a smaller set of donors.# This highlights that Pawlenty has experience fundraising in small amounts but is not particularly informative when making comparisons to other candidates. Fortunately, this will no longer be a problem as future FEC filing deadlines approach.

The Changing Politics of Health Care Professionals

June 6, 2011 1 comment

The New York Times published a fascinating article last week about the changing politics of physicians. The article reports that as more physicians abandon practices for salaried positions their politics have trended to the left. This trend is also present in the contribution patterns of health care professionals.

The figure below tracks the changes across time in the ideological giving patterns of four groups of health care professionals: surgeons, nurses, mental health care professionals (restricted to psychiatrists and clinical psychologists), and all other physicians. The trends track the mean ideological position (ideal point) of donors within each group. For each election cycle, I take the subset of donors from each group that gave at least once during that cycle and calculate their ideal points based on all donations made during that cycle and cycles prior. This permits the ideal point estimates to update with time.

Here are some helpful summary statistics for interpreting the scale. The mean ideal point for the entire sample of 2.5 million individual contributors (which includes health care professionals) is -0.16. The mean ideal point is -0.66 for Democratic candidates and 0.82 for Republican candidates.

Surgeons are by far the most conservative. They are also the group that was, on average, more conservative in 2010 than in 1990. The other three groups trend to the left in varying degrees.

I included nurses to emphasize that the industry has been changing as a whole. I also included psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to emphasize that differences between groups is probably better understood as a function of self-selection into a given profession than anything else. Whatever differences in pay and work conditions exist between mental health professionals and other physicians, they would not be sufficient to explain the differences in ideology. That mental health professionals are significantly to the left of nurses reinforces this point.

Ideological Giving Patterns of Health Care Professionals: The trends track the mean ideological position of donors from each group. The means are calculated from the subset of donors within each group who gave at least once during a given election cycle.

Although revealing, the trend line for physicians leaves out much of the story. The mean ideological position is relatively stable, but there is plenty of action in the distribution. The 1994 and 2010 midterm election cycles represent the closest thing to electoral deja vu that we can expect to see in our lifetimes. This makes these cycles useful points for comparison. The figures below show the ideological distributions for surgeons and physicians in 1994 and 2010. The distribution for surgeons fills out a little on the left over the years but remains unimodal. In contrast, the distribution for physicians changes quite a bit. Ideologically speaking, physicians have become more evenly divided and more polarized.

Ideological Distributions of Physicians and Surgeons Donating to Political Campaigns during the 1994 and 2010 Midterm Elections


These figures can help address one of the paragraphs from the article that caught my attention:

“Dr. Cecil B. Wilson, the president of the A.M.A., said that changes in doctors’ practice-ownership status do not necessarily lead to changes in their politics. And some leaders of state medical associations predicted that the changes would be fleeting.”

I strongly suspect that Dr. Wilson is correct in his assessment. The link between doctors abandoning private practices for salaried jobs and their changing politics is probably overblown. I attempted to get at this question by dividing the sample into physicians who report being self-employed and physicians who report having an employer. I found only a slight difference between the groups. On the other hand, I sincerely doubt that the changes will be fleeting. The changes appear to be responding to generational shifts—in particular, the influx of women doctors.

I was curious as to whether the rightward jump observed during the 2010 midterms resulted from 1) donors that had previously given to Democrats shifting their dollars to Republicans or 2) increased giving by Republican donors relative to Democratic donors. In other words, was it a case of changing minds or changing wallets? For each year, I categorize donors into one of six categories based on their giving patterns in previous cycles.

  • Strong Democrat – greater than 95% of donation dollars went to Democrats in prior elections
  • Lean Democrat – between 60% and 95% of dollars went to Democrats  in prior elections
  • Toss Up – between 40% and 60% of dollars went to Democrats  in prior elections
  • Lean Republican – between 5% and 40% of dollars went to Democrats in prior elections
  • Strong Republican – less than 5% of dollars went to Democrats in prior elections
  • New Money – first time donors/had not given in prior elections

Each bar displays aggregate amounts donated to each party. For example, the bar labeled “Strong Dem” in the 2010 panel shows that donors who in previous cycles gave 95% or more of their dollars to Democrats, gave $41 Million to Democrats and $1.5 million to Republicans.


Partisan defections by Democratic donors had little to do with the 2010 shift in favor of Republicans. (In fact, the defection rate was greater for Republicans donors.) Increased giving by Republican donors and slightly reduced giving by Democratic donors account for the lion’s share of the swing. Republicans also received a larger proportion of dollars from first time donors than they had in the past. Republicans won 62 percent of the dollars from first donors in 2010, up from 44 percent in 2008 and 57 percent in 2006.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the overall rightward shift during the 2010 midterms is no larger than what we saw in other industries. Hence, I caution against concluding that the shift was in direct response to the Affordable Health Care Act.


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