I earlier blogged about some interesting maps of the sources of gifts to political campaigns. Part of my interest in political fundraising stems from my perplexity that so many people give anything to political candidates or parties. I don't puzzle over large gifts, which might well buy enough "access" (in the parlance of lobbyists) to repay the investment. But why do so many people give $250 to Bush or Kerry? That relatively paltry sum will neither sway the election nor buy a political favor. Why part with it, then?
I suppose that you might ask the same question about why people vote. A single vote will not elect a candidate or win friends in high places. People don't decide to vote on the basis of such crassly straightforward cost/benefit calculations (leastwise, they don't unless their calculations use wildly inaccurate numbers). Rather, they vote for more complicated reasons, such as affirming their membership in some group, fulfilling a civic duty, or (my personal reason) to make their arguments about political issues more persuasive.
Viewed that way, it turns out that small political donations might make sense. Indeed, numbers from the 2000 election suggest that even very small donations might prove more efficacious than voting. According to the Federal Election Commission, 105,405,100 people cast a vote for a presidential candidate in the 2000 election. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top five presidential candidates raised a total of $375,263,914 to campaign in that election. The other, less popular candidates probably raised only trifling sums. Divide the second number by the first, therefore, and you'll get a fair approximation of how much was donated on behalf of each voter: $3.56.
Donating even as little as $5 to a political party or campaign would thus probably have a greater impact than casting a vote for the same. Granted, giving money does not achieve all the same aims of voting. If you vote mainly so that you can make more plausible arguments to others about how they should vote, for instance, you will find making political donations a poor substitute. Since that provides my main reason for voting, I don't plan to make any gifts to politicians. Besides, the way I figure it, I gave at the office.