Campaign Donations for Access?

The Boston Globe published a story that Bernie Sanders’s campaign has rejected a $2,700 donation from the CEO of a pharmaceutical company recently in the news for accusations of price gouging.  The Globe reports that CEO Shkreli explained the donation as motivated by a mixture of personal support and strategic intent on the part of his company and industry to get a meeting with Sanders:

Shkreli made the contribution, he said, partly because he supports some of Sanders’ proposals — just not the ones about drug prices. But mainly, he said, he donated to get the senator’s attention in the hopes that he could get a private meeting to explain why drug companies set prices the way they do.

[…]

And he was especially enthusiastic when Sanders mentioned during the debate that he supported President Bill Clinton’s military intervention in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing. Shkreli, who is Albanian, cited that statement on Twitter when he mentioned he had given money to Sanders.

“That hit me very hard. For a guy I didn’t expect to like, I couldn’t ignore that,” Shkreli said.

A long-standing debate addresses why people give money to politicians.  Probably the most popular explanation is that donations buy influence, enabling donors to get laws and regulations they prefer.  Another view sees donations as a means of getting access to politicians.  The access view takes a weaker position on whether the access leads to influence.  A third view sees donations as a subsidy to politicians whose positions the donor supports.  Here the donation is a means of supporting the work of that politician, rather than a means of changing the politician’s mind about something.  Yet another view explains donations as driven by ideology or a desire to participate in the political process.  This view sees individual donations as being too small to substantially affect politicians.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Political Science by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman suggests that politicians send higher-level officials to meetings when they believe the person they are meeting with has donated to politicians in the past.  In the Sanders case, the CEO’s explanation appears to support the views of donations as motivated by gaining access and by personal ideology.  However, it is possible that this is the most attractive defense story the CEO could come up with to explain the donation once it was rejected.  Also, in this case the donation got the opposite of access.

More research is needed on the motivations and effects of political donations before we fully understand what is happening.

Further reading:

  • Kalla, J. L., & Broockman, D. E. (2015). Congressional Officials Grant Access Due To Campaign Contributions: A Randomized Field Experiment. American Journal of Political Science, 00(0), 1–14. doi:10.1111/ajps.12180
  • Ansolabehere, S., de Figueiredo, J. M., & Snyder Jr, J. M. (2003). Why is There so Little Money in U.S. Politics? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(1), 105–130.
  • Hall, R. L., & Deardorff, A. V. (2006). Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy. American Political Science Review, 100(1), 69–84. doi:doi:10.1017/S0003055406062010
  • de Figueiredo, J. M. (2009). Integrated Political Strategy (No. 15053).
  • Lux, S., Crook, T. R., & Woehr, D. J. (2011). Mixing Business With Politics: A Meta-Analysis of the Antecedents and Outcomes of Corporate Political Activity. Journal of Management, 37(1), 223–247. doi:10.1177/0149206310392233

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