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How Issue Positions Affect Candidate Performance: Experiments Comparing Campaign Donors and the Mass Public


In light of important limitations in using observed contribution behavior or surveys to assess how donors respond to candidate issue positions, we present novel experimental evidence about how habitual donors (individuals who contribute above average amounts, multiple times, and in consecutive elections) respond to candidate issue positions. Using a vignette design, we provide causal evidence about the support for two types of divergence from typical candidate issue position bundles—being too extreme or bipartisan. We show “typical” candidates outperform all others in terms of likelihood of attracting donations, primary votes, and general election votes. We also find that donors’ responsiveness to positions vis-à-vis a non-donor sample is not solely driven by partisan intensity and key demographics (i.e., high educated, high income, age, etc.). These results provide evidence that party-consistent positioning among candidates and incumbents may be reinforced by donors’ opposition to issue positions that diverge from the party-standard.

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  1. There are of course many reasons that individuals donate, including personal connections with a candidate, party leadership outreach, or the importance of a single issue. Our analysis focuses only on the importance of candidate issue positions in the set of issues studied here.

  2. For consistency, we will refer to a candidate as “her” and a donor or voter as “he” throughout.

  3. This is also a problem in cases where candidates diverge from party norms, as when a moderate candidate runs in another party’s stronghold. Because a moderate running is a strategic calculation reflecting the chances of party victory absent being moderate, we cannot resolve whether donors are (or are not) supporting these candidates because of their positions or their relative chances of victory.

  4. It is also difficult to rule out the possibility that donors are simply better informed and so report issue positions in-line with the incumbents they support.

  5. We use outcome measures about voting for this comparison because we are interested in how individual donors, who are a subgroup of the general voting population, respond to issue positions compared to their general population counterparts. Because members of the general population do not contribute, primary and general election voting are common evaluative metrics to compare donors and non-donors.

  6. The survey was conducted using a sample provided by Survey Sampling International. See “Data Gathering” subsection for details.

  7. On the Democratic side, Senator Jon Tester of Montana has an A-score from the NRA, and Joe Manchin III (WV), Joe Donnelly (ID), and Heidi Heitkamp (ND) are also in the A range, compared to almost every other Democrat with an F rating. They have these high NRA scores because they consistently adopt positions that are espoused by Republicans on gun rights. (That is, they did not take ambiguous positions or moderate positions.).

  8. Candidates can also adopt ambiguous positions when they disagree with their party, and future research should explore how donors respond to ambiguity.

  9. An additional advantage of this design is that if there are other external pressures that guide donations (e.g., peer pressure to support party norms), the survey context is less affected by these factors than publicly reported contributions, allowing us to focus more fully on the effect of ideological considerations.

  10. We also had 46 postcards returned as undelivered.

  11. 908 completed surveys over 14,994 contacted with valid email or mailing addresses.

  12. The excluded treatment assignment is a candidate who adopts completely unorthodox positions, which is not directly comparable to the other treatments used in this analysis.

  13. Table 2 excludes one respondent who could not be matched back to their contribution records because they incorrectly entered their unique pin to the point of not being recoverable, which we used to track who completed our survey from our sampling frame.

  14. Pre-treatment demographic information is available in Supplemental Material.

  15. At the same time, donations do not go to zero for extreme or bipartisan candidates. These candidates can therefore still raise money, although less effectively than mainstream partisan candidates. We think these relative magnitudes are important because only one candidate can actually make it out of the primaries and into the general election (excluding cases like jungle primaries). In other words, if the goal is to win elections and maximize contributions, then relative magnitudes are exceedingly important.

  16. One question is whether donors are responding to candidate positions per se, or are instead inferring other characteristics (e.g., valence) on the basis of those positions. If it is the former, spatial models of donating predict donors support candidates who are more ideologically similar, and more ideologically extreme donors should therefore penalize extremist candidates less. We investigate this pattern empirically in Supplemental Material (See Tables A7 and A8) and find that “very” liberal/conservative donors show no significant difference in support between the extreme candidate and the aligned candidate. That is, donors who are more intensely ideological do not punish extremist candidates, consistent with the view that donors are choosing which candidates to support on the basis of the match between their ideology and that of the candidate.

  17. We use control variables in this interaction analysis to reduce sampling variability and to help rule out the possibility that differences across samples are due to demographic differences rather than donor status per se.

  18. Supplemental Material shows the full interaction model, and we find that the extreme candidate is evaluated more favorability among strong partisans.

  19. Hall (2015) finds that in a district that barely nominates an extremist, the extremist does 9 percentage points worse in the general election. Even though we find the largest drop in the primaries, our general election results are still similar to Hall’s 9 percentage point drop—we find a drop in 7.5 percentage points among the mass public with an additional (insignificant) 4.7% drop among the donor sample (Table 4). Hall’s larger drop of 9 percentage points might be attributed to other (negative) factors that are correlated with being an extremist in an observational setting, such as greater difficulty garnering PAC contributions. More generally, extremist candidates in Hall’s dataset differ on other characteristics from non-extremists (i.e., valence attributes beyond officeholder experience), which may also contribute to poorer electoral performances.

  20. In addition to appealing to a broader electorate in a general election, donors might also understand that extremist candidates who win primaries may encourage higher turnout among the other party (Hall and Thompson 2018).


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Correspondence to Gregory A. Huber.

Additional information

For helpful comments and advice, we thank Michael Barber, Andrew Hall, Seth Hill, Neil Malhotra, Eleanor Powell, Chris Tausanovitch, participants at APSA 2017, and participants at the summer research seminar at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies. Replication data are available at

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Gooch, A., Huber, G.A. How Issue Positions Affect Candidate Performance: Experiments Comparing Campaign Donors and the Mass Public. Polit Behav 42, 531–556 (2020).

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  • Donors
  • Experiments
  • Campaign finance
  • Polarization
  • Congressional elections
  • Issue positions