Michael J Malbin et al, “The CFI Small Donor Project: An Overview of the Project and a Preliminary Report on State Legislative Candidates’ Perspectives on Donors and Volunteers,” Paper prepared for delivery at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 29-September 2, Chicago, IL.
The authors describe the scope of the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) multi-year, multi-state research effort known as “The CFI Small Donor Project.” CFI is hoping to gather information not just on why small donors give to campaigns, but also whether they are likely to become involved in other ways in campaigns—via grassroots activities—that would enhance democracy. The project is focusing on seven states and one city. Two “Clean Elections” states—Arizona and Connecticut—are among those that will be studied. The authors report on preliminary results from candidate surveys, concluding that the “candidates responses are generally consistent with a theory that would see some small donor contributions as being social activities and that also would see contributions for a nontrivial number of small donors as being a gateway form of activity that potentially would increase both financial and nonfinancial participation by less affluent and middle income citizens.” The full version of the report is downloadable in pdf format.
Key excerpts follow [Emphases added]:
- [W]e know much less than we should about why small donors give, the similarities and differences between small and large donors, or how giving relates to other forms of their political and civic engagement. As a result, we do not really know the best way to connect policies to the desired end.
- [W]hen we move away from corruption-related issues to pursue equality and civic participation, we have to ask whether limits are the best (or only) way to move toward those goals. Contribution limits are structured most clearly to affect the directness of a relationship between candidates, office holders or party officials and donors. But there are so many constitutionally protected ways for wealthy people to influence elections without giving directly... that there is only so much one can hope to accomplish in the name of equality through limits. Perhaps a more interesting approach would be to develop policies that would increase political speech and participation, rather than devoting one's full energy to squeezing the top.
- Beyond the issue of reducing candidate dependence on large contributions, we want to know whether bringing more small donors into the campaign finance system can help to slow or even reverse the broader decline of political participation, including participation in modes that renew stocks of social capital....If contributing to a campaign is linked to other, associational forms of participation, enlarging the pool of donors could yield social capital gains.
- …Small donors are often less affluent and therefore frequently come from the segment of society that is least inclined to participate in politics.... While people with less disposable money may be a tough group to reach, its low rate of participation also mean it has the most room to grow. In particular, they may be more responsive than richer donors to donor incentive programs (such as a tax credit or rebate), and they may be most sensitive to a program that imposes minimal net transaction costs. This condition is interesting because it holds the potential for states to use public policy to stimulate political involvement and social capital formation beyond whatever might result from the sheer act of giving money – even beyond that of giving in one of the socially integrative modes noted earlier. If incentive program gains are proportionally higher among the less affluent, the program would yield the additional benefit of reducing participatory inequality.