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The WNBA influenced the Georgia Senate race, new research finds

After Kelly Loeffler attacked Black Lives Matter, the WNBA backed one of her opponents — who pushed her into a January runoff

- November 30, 2020

On June 24, 2020, Kelly Loeffler, an incumbent Republican senator and WNBA team owner, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for being a “very divisive organization” promoting “violence and destruction across the country.” In doing so, she kicked off a summer-long standoff with the WNBA and its players. After a Yahoo article asked on June 29 “why Kelly Loeffler [was] still a WNBA co-owner,” considering her comments, players got involved. Star players asked Loeffler to step down and reemphasized the league’s commitment to dedicate its season to the “Say Her Name” campaign and to Breonna Taylor.

But on Aug. 4, WNBA players shifted their strategy. Arguing that Loeffler was criticizing the WNBA to win over conservative voters, players began actively supporting one of her opponents, the Rev. Raphael Warnock. In August, most of the league wore “Vote Warnock” T-shirts on national television and discussed their reasons for supporting him in many interviews from August to Election Day. Warnock’s polling and donation numbers started rising over the summer. In November, he forced Loeffler into a runoff election, to be held in January. Warnock recently said that the WNBA’s decision to support him was a “turning point” in his campaign.

Was that really because of the WNBA? Many things started going right for Warnock during the summer aside from the players’ support. My research suggests that Warnock is right: WNBA support made the difference.

Looking at raw donation numbers won’t tell us what made the difference

Warnock noted that, in the 48 hours after the WNBA’s Aug. 4 T-shirt campaign, his campaign raised $183,000 and attracted 3,500 new grass-root donors. In fact, in both late June, when the WNBA criticized Loeffler, and early August, when the players began supporting Warnock, his campaign raised a great deal in donations, with high dollar totals and high numbers of donors.

But these high-donation periods may have been driven by other factors. Warnock’s platform centered on health care and civil rights during a pandemic and a renewed reckoning with race in America. Democrats in general were having good news cycles, good polling numbers had come out, the election was getting closer, and donor groups were more active. Loeffler was already in the news for her anti-BLM statements before the WNBA picked up the fight. On July 30, Warnock got national attention when he delivered the eulogy at John Lewis’s funeral. All these events likely also drove donations to Warnock.

Here’s how I did my research

To isolate the WNBA’s effect on donations, I used various statistical methods and Federal Election Commission data to measure the jump in donations at two key points compared to two benchmarks: how much the Warnock campaign was already raising, and how much other Democratic candidates in toss-up Senate races raised during the same period. I found that after the June 29 Yahoo article kicked off WNBA mobilization, the Warnock campaign saw a 10 percent increase in daily donations over its previous daily averages, for an additional $25,000 in the 48 hours following the league and players’ criticism of Loeffler. Similarly, after the WNBA’s T-shirt campaign, Warnock’s campaign brought in 20 percent more than what the campaign had been getting in previous days, for a boost of $40,000 in the 48-hour window.

These are conservative estimates. WNBA-inspired donations could have kept pouring in for the next days or weeks. But isolating those as direct effects becomes impossible at that point.

Overall, the WNBA’s effect was small. Other campaign events boosted donations much more. For instance, after Barack Obama endorsed Warnock on Sept. 25 and new polls showed him leading the race for the first time, his campaign received a $250,000 surge over 48 hours, for a 40 percent increase at the time.

But the WNBA’s support boosted the campaign at a crucial moment.

WNBA players changed the financial dynamics of the campaign

While Loeffler mostly funded her own campaign, some of her best fundraising days came after her anti-BLM comments and the WNBA’s response to them. That nationalized the race. The Warnock campaign’s 10 percent donation boost after June 29 came almost entirely from political action committees and national activist groups. But in August, when the WNBA switched from criticizing Loeffler to supporting Warnock, his campaign saw an increase in grass-root donations. A little over 50 percent of the extra boost to Warnock’s campaign on Aug. 4 can be attributed to individual donations, mainly from within Georgia.

Did these gains translate to the polls?

As you can see in the figure below, according to polling data from FiveThirtyEight, August is when Warnock’s support began climbing, separating from his Democratic opponent in the race, Matt Lieberman, and eventually overtaking the two Republican front-runners, Loeffler and Rep. Douglas A. Collins. It is impossible to isolate the effect of the WNBA’s support from the Warnock campaign’s other positive developments over the summer. We can assume, however, that the WNBA contributed.

In 2020, all sports leagues dove into a summer of activism. The NBA wore social justice messages on their jerseys, boycotted playoffs games after Kenosha, Wis., police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake, and offered their arenas as November voting places. More players in the NHL, NFL and MLB chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality toward Blacks. Recent research finds that professional athletes’ statements on criminal justice reform, police brutality, or the BLM movement can change people’s attitudes on these topics. And the WNBA appears to have contributed to boosting its candidate into a runoff election against Loeffler.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kenosha police shot and killed Jacob Blake. He was paralyzed but not killed. We regret the error.

Angele Delevoye (@AngeleDelevoye) is a PhD candidate in political science and quantitative methods at Yale University.