Please Give? Sure, So Long as My Guy Wins

New research suggests Americans give more to charity when a member of their political party is in the White House.
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Many important outcomes hinge on the results of Tuesday’s election. The fate of health-care reform. The makeup of the Supreme Court.

And, of course, the amount of money you’ll be giving to charity next year.

The latter conclusion is found in a paper prepared by MIT political scientists Michele Margolis and Michael Sances for a recent conference of the American Political Science Association. Their research caught the attention of the Washington Post a couple of weeks back for its refutation of Arthur Brooks’ oft-repeated claim that conservatives are more generous donors than liberals.

In fact, according to Margolis and Sances, “Republicans and Democrats appear to donate roughly equal percentages of their income to charity.” The actual difference, they argue, is where that money goes: “Liberals and Democrats are more inclined to donate to nonreligious organizations, while conservatives and Republicans donate to religious causes, especially their own congregations.”

While those results aren’t surprising, the researchers’ additional observation may raise some eyebrows: “We find that charitable contributions fluctuate based on the political landscape.”

Specifically, they write, Democrats apparently give less money to charity when a Republican is in the White House, and vice versa.

Margolis and Sance determined this by analyzing Internal Revenue Service data on giving to nonprofit organizations. Specifically, they looked at annual donations to a nationally representative sample of tax-exempt organizations between 1982 and 2008. They compared total giving in 13 heavily Republican states, including Alabama, Arizona and Texas, with 12 heavily Democratic states, including California, Illinois and Massachusetts.

Their conclusion: “When a Republican is in the White House, nonprofits from Republican states have higher mean levels of charitable contributions. Similarly, for the most Democratic areas, having a Democrat in the White House yields significantly higher contributions.”

Why would this be? “Democrats and Republicans feel more optimistic about the economy when their party controls the White House,” the researchers write, pointing to evidence that “these biased perceptions translate into real economic behaviors.”

If, as recent research suggests, partisans on one side or the other spend more following a presidential victory by their party, it follows that they’ll also be more generous in giving to charity.

So directors of nonprofit organizations will be eagerly watching the election returns Tuesday night, but their rooting interests will vary. If you’re a soup kitchen or theater company in a blue state, an Obama win might open wallets a bit wider. On the other hand, if you’re a red-state church in need of a new roof, a Romney victory may be just the ticket.

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