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The Political Ecology of Opinion in Big-Donor Neighborhoods

Abstract

Major campaign donors are highly concentrated geographically. A relative handful of neighborhoods accounts for the bulk of all money contributed to political campaigns. Public opinion in these elite neighborhoods is very different from that in the country as a whole and in low-donor areas. On a number of prominent political issues, the prevailing viewpoint in high-donor neighborhoods can be characterized as cosmopolitan and libertarian, rather than populist or moralistic. Merging Federal Election Commission contribution data with three recent large-scale national surveys, we find that these opinion differences are not solely the result of big-donor areas’ high concentration of wealthy and educated individuals. Instead, these neighborhoods have a distinctive political ecology that likely reinforces and intensifies biases in opinion. Given that these locales are the origin for the lion’s share of campaign donations, they may steer the national political agenda in unrepresentative directions.

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Notes

  1. In 2008, a year in which campaign contributions shattered all previous records, a mere 15% of Americans surveyed reported making a donation of any amount to a campaign; in 2007, the percentage was 8% (Pew Research Center 2008).

  2. For this calculation, we sum the itemized FEC contributions to all federal election candidates and both major parties from each zip code.

  3. Without question, there is a positive association between areas of high income and locations that give large contributions, but this correlation is not as strong as one might expect. (Correlating median income and contribution amounts yields the following results for 2004: ρ = 0.40; p ≤ 0.001; for 2000: ρ = 0.25; p ≤ 0.001.) There is considerable discrepancy between where the rich reside and where rich political activists reside. Correlating professional employment and education level with contribution amounts yields similar results. Indicators for all these constructs are positively associated with campaign giving at the zip code level, but the correlations are of only moderate strength. The upshot is that a variable reflecting contribution amounts does not simply measure an area’s high income or professional status.

  4. Wording for the survey items used in this study is provided in Appendix A.

  5. The average zip code in 2004, for example, has a mean population of 10,405 and a mean voting age population of 7,055. Zip codes in urban areas generally contain more people than those in rural areas.

  6. Stem cell research is somewhat of a dubious fit in the cosmopolitanism/populism issue category, in any case. Although opinion on this issue is influenced by the grassroots anti-abortion politics of the right, it is also shaped by the politics of medical research and the outreach campaigns of specific disease-treatment focused interests.

  7. The only firearms-relevant question in the 2006 CCES was whether the respondent happened to own a gun (not shown in Fig. 3). Fully 77.6% of those residing in the top campaign contribution neighborhoods reported that they did not own a gun, compared with only 44.3% among those in the lowest contribution bracket.

  8. While the multi-level estimation strategy does involve some modest loss of cases in those locations where zip codes contained a single respondent, we found that the results did not change greatly using the generalized hierarchical model from a standard logistic regression model.

  9. The FEC files very reliably report zip code information on contributors. We were able to minimize the number of missing zip codes by manually searching through the FEC files by name and address, often using complete records for a given contributor to fill in the zip code information for incomplete records for that same contributor. For 2004, we reduced the amount of contributions unattributable to any zip code to 2.6% of the total.

  10. We fully recognize that the inclusion of ideology on the right hand side suggests that liberal-conservative ideology is the ‘cause’ of these issue opinions, rather than issue opinions being a source of liberal-conservative ideology. But our interest here is not to engage the thorny endogeneity issue, but simply to evaluate whether there is a substantive and statistically significant coefficient for contributing neighborhoods, even after we take the self-reported political ideology of the survey respondent into account. The results show that there is.

  11. As a summary estimate of impact, this 47% figure is computed from the estimated change in the probability of favoring support of the sale of RU-486 by moving the amount contributed from its lowest to highest amount, with the values of all other variables in the model held constant at their sample means. Other estimates of impact we discuss throughout the remainder of the text are computed the same way.

  12. Quoted in Manjoo (2005).

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Correspondence to James G. Gimpel.

Appendices

Appendix A

See Table 6.

Table 6 Question wording from surveys on issues

Appendix B

See Tables 7, 8, and 9.

Table 7 Influence of neighborhood contributions on other issue opinions, controlling for individual characteristics, 2000
Table 8 Influence of neighborhood contributions on other issue opinions, controlling for individual characteristics, 2004
Table 9 Influence of neighborhood contributions on other issue opinions, controlling for individual characteristics, 2006

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Bramlett, B.H., Gimpel, J.G. & Lee, F.E. The Political Ecology of Opinion in Big-Donor Neighborhoods. Polit Behav 33, 565–600 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-010-9144-7

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Keywords

  • Campaign fundraising
  • Public opinion
  • Political elites
  • Campaign donors
  • Political ecology
  • Political geography