How partisan divide helps increase campaign donations

July 12, 2016 - 3 minutes read

How partisan divide could increase campaign donations

A recent podcast from The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam, an NPR Social sciences correspondent,  talks about a political fundraising experiment that reveals:

Small donors are more likely to open their wallets for political campaigns when they’re told other donors who support a rival candidate are being generous.

Ned Augenblick and Jesse M. Cunha, Economists from HAAS Berkeley, came up with a finding that may have some bearing into the kind of political mail you receive. Shankar Vedantam talks you through the research and the results. The research looked into what kind of mail elicits donations from voters. Small donors are an important part of all campaigns. Campaigns also draw heavily on research into what works and what doesn’t.

In their research paper , they explore the effects of competitive and cooperative motivations on contributions in a field experiment. Their sample set for this experiment was Jesse M Cunha dad’s political campaign who was running for a seat in congress. The researchers convinced him to let them run some field experiments. His dad was a Democrat running against an incumbent Republican. His chances of winning were predicted to be low because of this. Now his since his odds of winning were very long, getting donations from democrat voters was harder. There is this resistance to giving money to a potentially losing candidate. There could be two reasons a Democrat voter would donate to his campaign;

Co-operative reason: As a loyal democrat, if others are giving money you need to too. You want to play the role of a co-operator.

Competitive reason: You may want to make sure that your candidate doesn’t get outspent by the opposition.

The research tried to understand which one of these motivations was stronger.

The experiment

10,000 potential political donors received postcards with  solicitations referencing past contribution behaviour of members of the Republican party, their own party , the Democrats, or no past contribution information, as the control. They analysed the effect of these treatments on the contribution behaviour of these donors.


What they found is that contribution rates in the competitive, cooperative, and control treatments were 1.45%, 1.08%, and 0.78%, respectively.

With the exception of one large contribution, the distribution of contributions when a donor received a mail about how much the Republicans were donating, were higher than that of when they got information about how much a Democrat donates..

These results suggest that eliciting competitive rather than cooperative motivations can lead to higher contributions in intergroup public good settings.

Listen to it Shankar Vedantam talk about this research.

NPR player Hidden brain


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