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How Internal Constraints Shape Interest Group Activities: Evidence from Access-Seeking PACs

  • ZHAO LI (a1)

Interest groups contribute much less to campaigns than legally allowed. Consequently, prevailing theories infer these contributions must yield minimal returns. I argue constraints on PAC fundraising may also explain why interest groups give little. I illuminate one such constraint: access-seeking PACs rely on voluntary donations from affiliated individuals (e.g., employees), and these PACs alienate donors with partisan preferences when giving to the opposite party. First, difference-in-differences analysis of real giving shows donors withhold donations to access-seeking PACs when PACs contribute to out-partisan politicians. Next, an original survey of corporate PAC donors demonstrates they know how their PACs allocate contributions across parties, and replicates the observational study in an experiment. Donors’ partisanship thus limits access-seeking PACs’ fundraising and influence. This provides a new perspective on why there is little interest group money in elections, and has broad implications for how partisan preferences and other internal constraints shape interest group strategy.

Corresponding author
Zhao Li is a Ph.D. candidate in political economics, Stanford Graduate School of Business (
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This paper has benefited from excellent feedback from the editor and three anonymous reviewers. In addition, I am grateful for continued guidance from Adam Bonica, David Broockman, Neil Malhotra, and Ken Shotts. I am also thankful for many helpful comments from Michael Barber, Dave Baron, Jon Bendor, Kate Casey, Richard DiSalvo, Alex Hertel-Fernandez, Keith Krehbiel, Jon Krosnick, Ellie Powell, Dave Primo, Larry Rothenberg, and poster session attendees at the Yale Center for American Politics Summer Conference as well as the Conference of the Society for Political Methodologists. The survey experiment in this paper was preregistered with Evidence in Governance and Politics (EGAP) (Registration No. 20170413AC) and approved by Stanford University’s Institutional Review Board (Protocol No. 39512). Special thanks to the PhD program at Stanford Graduate School of Business for providing funding for my experiment; Adam Bonica for sharing version 3 of the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections; and George Thampy for suggestions that enhanced the ecological validity of the experimental treatment conditions. All errors are my own. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:

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