Who Donates to Party Switchers?

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 295 –307
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19858336
I had a Republican colleague—he was very powerful—call me
and ask me to [switch parties]. And he told me that I wouldn’t
have to worry about money. I always had trouble raising money,
I was never good at it . . . But this person told me I would not
have to worry about raising money.
—Interview with a potential switcher from Yoshinaka (2016)
With the typical U.S. House winner spending close to $1.5
million in 2014 (Brookings, 2019), winning and retaining
elective office can be an expensive proposition; doing so after
having changed party labels can be even costlier in terms of
resources and the potential for voter backlash. Yet, over the
last several decades, a handful of incumbent members of
Congress (MCs) have switched parties, and an even larger
number of legislators have done so in lower levels of govern-
ment. This unique situation affords us with the opportunity to
answer the following question: What are the financial conse-
quences of party switching for incumbent politicians?
This question is important for at least two reasons. First,
switching parties is arguably the most important career deci-
sion for a sitting politician, and it carries electoral, represen-
tational, and legislative consequences. The reaction among
voters, colleagues, staffers, and the media can produce back-
lash. Yet, we know little about how switchers attempt to miti-
gate such uncertainty and shore up their bid for reelection.
We open the “black box” of postswitch electoral politics and
argue that campaign fundraising plays an important role.
Second, we use this unique situation in which an incumbent’s
relationship with constituents is altered to build on previous
research and further explore the intersection of the geogra-
phy and the motivations of donors.
Our results show that switchers turn to out-of-district
donors who are more likely to exert ideological behavior by
donating to like-minded politicians with whom they lack
geographical ties. Switchers are also more likely to rely on
party sources to remedy any shortcomings felt among other
donors. Our results help disentangle the dynamics that occur
in the aftermath of the decision to switch parties: switchers
turn to out-of-district, ideological donors and party support
to alleviate the local costs of switching parties. In short, we
suggest that the role of constituents living outside the
district—or what Fenno (1978) calls the “surrogate
constituency”—is an important source of support for incum-
bents who face significant in-district uncertainty.1
Our article makes several contributions. First, we expand
the literature on party switching by examining a mechanism
to overcome the electoral costs of a switch. Second, we esti-
mate the first-ever causal inference-based model of party-
switching effects in the United States by juxtaposing
traditional observational models to models that rely on a
selection-on-observables strategy. Third, we highlight what
Fenno (1978) calls the “surrogate constituency” in shoring
up support for vulnerable incumbents. In the context of an
increasingly polarized polity, our results point to another fac-
tor that can exacerbate the partisan divide: an increased reli-
ance on ideological donors who may pour money into any
district to help vulnerable incumbents. Fourth, we take a
novel approach to the study of representation. Rather than
estimating the effect of a representational shock on the behav-
ior of legislators (for instance, the effect of redistricting on
858336APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19858336American Politics ResearchHamel and Yoshinaka
1University of California, Los Angeles, USA
2University at Buffalo, SUNY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Brian T. Hamel, Department of Political Science, University of California,
Los Angeles, 4289 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472, USA.
Email: bhamel@ucla.edu
Who Donates to Party Switchers?
Brian T. Hamel1 and Antoine Yoshinaka2
What are the causal effects of legislative party switching on campaign fundraising? Using a selection-on-observables strategy
(a first in the study of U.S. party switchers), we demonstrate that relative to other similarly situated legislators, party
switchers rely more heavily on partisan and ideological, out-of-district individual donors, and direct party contributions. In
short, switchers—in trying to alleviate the electoral costs of switching—rely disproportionately on donors motivated to
protect vulnerable incumbents of a particular party. We conclude with a discussion of how these dynamics reinforce partisan
polarization and raise normative questions about representation and the role of the “surrogate constituency.”
party switchers, campaign donors, parties, Congress, money in politics

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