The success of a political cause depends heavily on monetary donations and volunteers. Persuading people to donate their money or time is therefore an important aspect of politics. The ability of persuasion is not only based on efforts, but also on sophisticated strategies. One then may ask, “What are the conditions under which political actors can make persuasive requests for donations?”

Dr. Adam Levine’s 2010 dissertation concerns this fundamental question of strategic solicitations. The dissertation, entitled “Strategic Solicitations: Explaining When Requests for Political Donations are Persuasive” elucidates this puzzle by exploring the constraints on people’s financial and temporal resources and how their willingness to donate scarce resources changes depending on issues.

He speaks to a common argument: that people are more willing to contribute to a cause when it shares their issue concerns and, as a result, mentioning such issues increases the persuasiveness of a request. The problem with this argument is that many issues that people care about remind them of financial and temporal budget constraints that they face, which in turn makes it difficult to justify spending resources on a donation.

Consider the following statement, which appeared in requests for money during the 2008 campaign:

 “Instead of prosperity trickling down, pain has trickled up. We’re losing jobs. Deficits are exploding. Our economy is in turmoil” (Obama/Biden campaign, 2008). 

Statements like this one mentioning common issues that people find to be important, yet that re mind them of financial constraints, reduces their willingness to donate money. Yet, because people do not treat time and money interchangeably, such statements will not reduce their willingness to volunteer time. The result is that the same issue can have divergent effects on people’s willingness to participate in politics. An analogous argument also applies to issues that remind people of temporal constraints.

Dr. Levine extends this empirically-tested behavioral theory to address his initial question. When two conditions are satisfied, a political organization can do better by contacting people that initially perceive it to have divergent issue priorities rather than its core supporters who perceive similarity:

“The first condition is that its core supporters care about issues that remind them of budgetary constraints, and therefore solicitations mentioning these issues will not be persuasive depending upon what they are asked to do. The second condition is that the organization can signal the shared priorities to initially-skeptical people using costly endorsements and issue-specific language,” remarked Dr. Levine.

The theory and results of the dissertation have many broader implications. For instance, issue-oriented interest groups tend to emphasize non-financial issues such as environmentalism. These groups also heavily rely on individuals’ donations of money and time. The dissertation can help explain why the groups avoid issues that remind potential donors of their budget constraints and, moreover, why it would be difficult to form a group focused on those budgetary issues.

Dr. Levine is an Assistant Professor in the Government Department at Cornell University. His dissertation was chaired by Arthur Lupia, with Ted Brader, Nancy Burns, and Scott Page as committee members.

The E. E. Schattschneider prize is awarded annually by the American Political Science Association (APSA) for the best doctoral dissertation completed and accepted during that year or the previous year in the field of American government. Past recipients include some of the best scholars in the field.