Research Spotlight: The Debate on Vote Buying Continues: Enter the CARES Act

Since the inception of New Deal aid programs in 1933, there has been heated political debate about whether Presidents can leverage federal assistance programs to “purchase” support from voters. The logic of the bought vote hypothesis is that those who benefit from government programs, whether it be emergency aid like FEMA payments for damaged property or longstanding programs like the Affordable Care Act, will be more likely to vote for the candidate who created or supports the continuation of those programs. Proponents of expanding federal aid spending generally regard this as voting in one’s economic self-interest; opponents characterize it as an undermining of democracy by inappropriately targeted redistribution simply to win votes. Nearly a century after New Deal policies began the debate, the debate rages on.

A central question in this debate is whether aid itself actually alters voters’ turnout or vote choice decisions, or whether other factors associated with receiving aid exert influence over those choices. This question has heretofore been challenging to address, as the majority of Americans who receive aid receive it because they applied for it. These Americans may be fundamentally different from eligible Americans who don’t receive aid because they did not apply. Despite the unfortunate circumstances leading to its inception, the COVID-19 CARES Act provides a unique opportunity for examining the vote buying hypothesis. Beneficiaries were not required to enroll in the program, but rather were sent direct payments from the government, often with then-incumbent President Donald J. Trump’s signature on them,  the summer before the 2020 Presidential Election.

Of those respondents who received CARES Act Aid, 44% report voting for Joe Biden while only 39% report voting for Donald Trump.”

A nationally representative FSU Institute of Politics Survey shows that 66% of Democrats report receiving aid themselves, compared to 75% of Republicans and 71% of Independents. Of those respondents who received CARES Act Aid, 44% report voting for Joe Biden while only 39% report voting for Donald Trump. Among those who had a household member receive aid, but themselves did not receive aid, 48% report voting for Joe Biden. The only group in which the plurality of respondents voted for Donald Trump are those who individually received aid and had a member of their household receive aid; among these respondents, 48% report voting for Donald Trump.

Overall Distribution of CARES Act Aid

To study aid and voting, I turn to a survey conducted on a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents, with an oversample of low socioeconomic status (SES) Americans. The survey ran from April 7th to April 15th, 2022, and received 2,150 usable responses, which are weighted to be representative of the nation. The survey asked respondents whether they, a member of their household, both themselves and a member of their household, or no one in the household had received individual aid from the COVID-19 CARES Act (Figure 1). 69% of Americans report receiving CARES Act Aid, either alone or alongside a member of their household. 78% report receiving aid or having a member of their household receive aid. Only 22% report not receiving any CARES Act Aid.

Figure 1: CARES Act Aid Distribution

Partisan Distribution of CARES Act Aid

One key tenant of the vote buying argument is that aid used to buy votes will be targeted to particular constituencies. Scholars disagree on whether transfers to members of their own party or to members of the opposing party whom they might sway yield Presidents the most electoral returns. To see if aid distribution appeared to favor certain partisans more than others, I consider the distribution of COVID-19 CARES Act Aid across partisan affiliation (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Partisan Distribution of CARES Act Aid

Among those who are Democrats, 66% report receiving aid themselves, compared to 75% of Republicans and 71% of Independents. 70% of those who were affiliated with another, smaller party report receiving aid themselves. This could suggest that Democrats were less likely than other partisan groups to receive CARES Act Aid or that they were simply less likely to recall having received it.

“66% of Democrats surveyed report receiving aid, compared to 75% of Republicans and 71% of Independents.”

CARES Act Aid and Voter Behavior

Another core tenant of the vote buying argument is that aid increases the number of voters who want to vote for the candidate who provided the aid, presumably because they believe that maintaining that candidate in office will lead to maintenance or furtherance of the benefits received. Figure 2 shows the distribution of vote choice across CARES Act Status.

“Not voting in the 2020 presidential election is lowest among those who received aid, only 16% of those received aid individually and 11% among those who received aid along with a household member, compared to 27% among those who themselves did not receive aid.”

Of those respondents who received CARES Act Aid, 44% report voting for Joe Biden while only 39% report voting for Donald Trump. Among those who had a household member receive aid, but themselves did not receive aid, 48% report voting for Joe Biden. The only group in which the plurality of respondents voted for Donald Trump are those who individually received aid and had a member of their household receive aid; among these respondents, 48% report voting for Donald Trump while 40% report voting for Biden. Notably, rates of not voting in the 2020 presidential election are lowest among those who received aid, 16% of those received aid individually and 11% among those who received aid along with a member of their household, compared to 27% among those who themselves did not receive aid.

Figure 3: Vote Choice by Aid Status

“The only group for which most respondents voted for Donald Trump are those who individually received aid and had a member of their household receive aid.”

Sarah Warren is a third-year PhD Candidate at the FSU Department of Political Science. You can learn more about Sarah here

Dr. Amanda Driscoll is an Associate Professor at the FSU Department of Political Science. You can learn more about Dr. Driscoll here.

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