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Corporate campaign contributions vary by industry

- August 4, 2010

John posted an excellent visualization by Adam Bonica of campaign contributions of business executives. Bonica writes:

These results challenge conventional beliefs about the political leanings of corporate leaders. Republicans have long been seen as the party of big business. To whatever extent this label should apply, it probably owes more to the party’s policies than the composition of its support base.

Bonica might be right about the conventional beliefs. I’d just like to add a few things:

1. Survey evidence suggests that business executives indeed are more Republican-leaning than the national average. See, for example, the graphs here, which appear in Red State, Blue State.

2. Within the field of political science (although maybe not to political journalists or to the public at large), it is well known that corporate campaign contributions vary by industry. Thomas Ferguson, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, has written a couple of books on the topic, which we summarized in Red State, Blue State as follows:

Probably the best evidence [about the political views of the richest Americans] comes from studies of political contributions. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has tracked political donations of top corporate executives and the Forbes 400 richest Americans (or their equivalents, in earlier periods). The data presented in his 1995 book, Golden Rule, indicate that America’s superrich have generally learned Republican, but with some notable exceptions that have changed over time. Certain industries have persistently higher rates of contributions to the Democrats. In the New Deal, these included industries with a strong interest in free trade. Since the Reagan years, finance, and high technology firms have been much friendlier to Democratic presidential candidates than most of the rest of American business.

For 2004, Ferguson consolidated the lists of top executives and richest families into a lot of 674 firms and investors. Out of this list, 53% contributed to George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and 16% donated to Kerry, with Bush doing better among the oil and pharmaceutical industries and Kerry getting more from investment banks and hedge funds.

The key points are that, yes, corporate contributions generally favor the Republicans, but they vary by industry, in ways that have changed over time.

P.S. Bonica has a research page that’s full of excellent graphs. I particularly like how he gives them long, descriptive captions so they are self-contained.