Theses Doctoral

Essays on the Motivations and Behavior of Individual Political Donors

Schwam-Baird, Michael

This dissertation consists of three related essays on the motivations and behavior of individual political donors. These essays test theoretical predictions from the campaign finance and political behavior literature using field experiments and a natural experiment, bolstering the causal interpretation of the findings.
The first essay reports the results of a field experiment examining the effect of political information on the decision to contribute. In advance of the November 2014 election, postcards with information about the major party candidates for Ohio governor and secretary of state were mailed to nearly 40,000 randomly selected likely donors in Ohio. The messages in these mailings, seven in all, provided factual information regarding campaign fundraising and endorsements, as well as a simple election reminder. Notably, the messages did not include encouragements to donate or partisan cues. The experimental results show that partisan donors respond to electoral threats as well as electoral opportunities under different conditions. Donors are more likely to give to the stronger candidate when they receive a simple election reminder with no fundraising information. But when donors see which candidates are ahead and behind in total fundraising, donors give more to the candidate who is behind while donations to the candidate with more money are unaffected. The results show that donors respond to objective information about fundraising weakness in order to help their preferred candidate.
The second essay (co-authored) uses experimental designs to explore two possible paths to expanding the number of small donors. First, we examine whether nonpartisan appeals, of the kind that nonprofit groups or governments could use, expand the donor base. The results suggest that one type of nonpartisan message represents a promising fundraising appeal: encouraging subjects to contribute in order to keep elected officials focused on policy issues of importance to the potential donor. Second, we determine whether informing the public about existing incentives for making small contributions increases the number and size of contributions. We report the results of two field experiments that randomly provided information to likely donors about municipal- and state-level incentives for making political contributions. Across the two experiments, we find little evidence that information about contribution incentives increases giving.
The third essay examines the effect of presidential political advertisements on contributing to the presidential campaigns of the major party candidates. I examine the effect of aggregate political advertising on aggregate contributing at the media zone level, and also estimate the effects of each party’s advertisements separately on giving to the party’s presidential campaign. I find that aggregate advertisements may have an effect on aggregate giving, but this effect is substantively small (much smaller than previous scholars have found) and inconsistent across different model specifications. In addition, I find that examining aggregate amounts may mask differences between the parties. During the 2008 election, Democratic presidential advertisements had a small, but detectable, positive effect on giving to the Democratic campaign. By contrast, Republican advertisements did not significantly increase giving to the Republican campaign in 2008.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Shapiro, Robert Yale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 14, 2016