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Is the Internet “Democratizing” Campaign Donations?

- January 2, 2008

[This is the second in a series of posts on how the Internet is affecting political campaigns. The first installment, on Youtube and the “macaca” incident, is here.]

It is clear that large numbers of people are giving money to candidate, parties, and other political causes via the Internet. The amount of money that candidates can raise via the internet routinely makes headlines, as when Ron Paul raised $4.2 million on November 5 and $6 million on December 16.

The Internet is also thought to draw in new donors who give small amounts of money, perhaps making candidates less dependent on fat-cat contributors.

So, how is the Internet affecting the contours of donations from the public? The early evidence suggests two findings:

1) More people are giving to political campaigns than in the past, although it is difficult to discern whether this derives from on-line donating.

2) This increase in the percentage of Americans who donate is occurring among the wealthy and politically attentive. The era of Internet fundraising is also an era of increasing stratification of campaign contributions, although, again, the Internet’s role remains unclear.

The Increase in Donating
Drawing on data from the American National Election Studies from 1952-2004, here is the percentage of people who reported donating to a political candidate or party in each year:

donate.png

Since 2000, there has been a notable increase in the percentage donating. The average in the 1990s was 6-7%. In 2002, it was 10.5%. In 2004, it was 12.6%. The internet could be playing a role, but each of these election years also featured competitive races and lots of partisan fervor, each of which could drive this increase. It is too early to conclude that the Internet itself is the crucial factor.

Growing Inequality among Donors
Political scientists routinely document large inequalities in the level of political participation (e.g., this book by Sidney Verba, Kay Schlozman, and Henry Brady). People with fewer resources, such as income, are less likely to participate. With regard to campaign donations, we would naturally expect wealthier people to be more likely to give. The question is, has the “gap” between the wealth and less-wealthy decreased in the era of Internet fundraising?

Here is a graph plotting the percent of the highest and lowest income quintiles who reported donating:

richpoordonate.png

While the 2002 ANES does not have the necessary income data to calculate these quantities, the trend between 2000 and 2004 suggests donating increased among the highest quintile (from 19% to 31%) but not at all among the lowest quintile (in both campaigns, 9% of this group reported donating). Thus, the “gap” sharply widens.

Let’s break the data down by how much people pay attention to politics, to see if those who have typically had little interest in politics have been encouraged to participate by donating. In the ANES, respondents were asked, “Some people seem to follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time, whether there’s an election going on or not. Others aren’t that interested. Would you say you follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time, some of the time, only now and then, or hardly at all?” I have divided respondents into three groups: “low” (the 35% who said “only now and then” or “hardly at all”), “middle” (the 37% who said “some of the time”), and “high” (the 28% who said “most of the time”). Here is the graph:

interestdonate.png

Again, there is a growing gap between the political interested and less interested. Donations have increased mostly among those who are interested in politics, not those who report less interest.

As in the first graph, the Internet’s role here is unclear. My point is not that the Internet should be blamed for these growing inequalities, but that the Internet’s democratizing effects are simply not evident in these data.

I welcome feedback on this preliminary analysis.