Peer-Reviewed Publication

Li, Zhao. 2018. "How Internal Constraints Shape Interest Group Activities: Evidence from Access-Seeking PACs." American Political Science Review 112(4):792--808.

Abstract. 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.

Other Publications

Li, Zhao. 2019. "Looking Inside the Black Box of Firms: A Proposal for A Research Agenda." The Political Economist 15(2): 17-19.

Li, Zhao. "Analyzing the Evidence: Who's Funding Google's PAC?" Forthcoming in American Politics: Power and Purpose, 16th edition, Theodore J. Lowi, Benjamin Ginsburg, Ken Shepsle, and Stephen Ansolabehere. New York: W.W. Norton.

Selected Working Papers

The Foreclosure Crisis and the Tea Party Movement: Evidence from Nationwide Campaign Finance and Real Estate Transactions

Abstract. Voters tend to reward extremist politicians following economic shocks, with potentially adverse policy implications. However, whether campaign donors in the U.S. respond similarly to economic crises remains an open question. Linking nationwide campaign finance and real estate transactions, I examine how exposure to the subprime mortgage crisis affected Republican donors’ support for Tea Party candidates, an extremist faction of the Republican party that opposed government relief for underwater homeowners. Difference-in-differences analysis shows that Republican donors in neighborhoods hit harder by foreclosures contributed less to Tea Partiers, but not to other GOP candidates. Republican donors' personal risks of mortgage default cannot rationalize this effect. Instead, Republican donors in distressed neighborhoods appeared to have punished Tea Partiers more when donors' neighborhoods are racially homogeneous. Campaign donors, whose lived experiences during economic shocks contrast with those of the general electorate, may provide distinct electoral and policymaking incentives in times of economic crises.

Inferring Candidates’ Issue-Specific Positions from Itemized Campaign Contributions Using Supervised Machine Learning (with Adam Bonica)

Abstract. The Supreme Court upholds mandatory disclosure of itemized contributions as an important means to help voters place candidates on the political spectrum “more precisely than is often possible solely on the basis of party labels and campaign speeches” (Buckley v. Valeo). To assess the informational value of disclosure, we apply supervised machine learning to infer candidates’ issue positions (using interest group ratings and alternative measures) based on the itemized contributions they receive. Our models outperform DW-NOMINATE scores in predicting candidates’ positions across policy domains, especially when distinguishing candidates from the same party. Additionally, we identify specific donors that best signal where candidates stand on each issue. Furthermore, fundraising records of legislators prior to winning office can forecast their future issue-specific positions. In short, itemized contributions can help voters accurately place candidates on different issues of interest, and are uniquely valuable for comparing co-partisan candidates in the absence of legislative records.

Economic Geography and Special Interest Entrenchment: Evidence from the Shale Boom and State Campaign Finance (with Richard DiSalvo)

Abstract. Do firms' presence in local communities lead them to concentrate their political activities in these communities? If so, what are the implications for corporate political strategy and business influence in society? To these ends, we leverage the fracking boom as a natural experiment on the geography of drilling activities across the United States. Using panel analysis and an instrumental variable design, we show that state legislative districts where drilling expanded during the fracking boom received an influx of oil and gas campaign contributions. Moreover, these contributions overwhelmingly benefitted Republican candidates, particularly those in historically Democratic districts, and may have facilitated Republican victories in fracking-intensive districts. Firms' geographic ties to districts not only lead them to channel more money in elections, but also adopt an electoral strategy in campaign giving. Business influence may therefore transform democratic representation across a broad range of constituencies in communities where firms have a local presence.