The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Industries that gave to a governor’s campaign were more likely to be declared ‘essential’

Why did some states declare dozens of industries ‘essential’ during the pandemic, while others designated only a few?

Closing signs blanket a Stein Mart in Salt Lake City on Aug. 30, 2020. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

When covid-19 began tearing through the United States in March 2020, governors had to make difficult political decisions about how to proceed: prioritize the economy and risk overburdening hospitals or issue broad shutdown orders and invite economic disaster. Still, at first, governors’ messages struck one surprisingly similar chord. Many Republicans and Democrats alike said they were going to “trust the science.”

But this did not mean they all made the same decisions about which workplaces could remain open.

Why did some states declare dozens of industries “essential” and therefore able to remain open while others designated only a few? In a recently published paper, we looked at whether an industry’s donations to a governor’s campaign might help explain this variation.

Why governors’ declarations might be influenced by money

Generally speaking, political scientists have struggled to measure any links between campaign donations and policy results. At best, campaign donations seem to sometimes give donors access to politicians’ offices — a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for influence over policy outcomes. Some scholars have even questioned whether campaign donations should be thought of as “investments” at all.

Scholars offer a wide variety of explanations for this surprising lack of evidence. But one especially compelling explanation comes from the U.S. system of the separation of powers. Even if you could buy policy results, who would you pay? For legislation to pass, a majority of representatives and senators, as well as the executive, must agree. “Buying” policy results is more complicated than it might seem.

But declaring a business essential is different from passing legislation; governors made those decisions unilaterally. While this gave them considerable power, it also provided very little political “cover.” If the governor were to shut down a business or industry, that business would know exactly who to blame. We decided to see if we could find a link between campaign donations and essential business declarations.

Millions of fake commenters asked the FCC to end net neutrality. 'Astroturfing' is a business model.

How we conducted our research

Our first step was to compile the texts of all essential business declarations from January to May 2020. We reclassified these into the common industry categories of the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS), so we could directly compare how different governors treated specific industries. Some industries were universally deemed essential, such as health-care workers and grocery stores. On the flip side, no state declared information technology or musicians to be essential. Meanwhile, others varied across state lines, including agriculture and various types of retail stores.

Next, we used data from the National Institute on Money in Politics to see which industries gave money to each governor’s most recent campaign. For example, if a governor received donations from Walmart, we would code that governor as having received funding from the NAICS subindustry “General Merchandise Stores.” If the American Soybean Association donated to a governor, we would code that as support from NAICS subindustry “Crop Production.” We coded campaign receipts for all 50 governors across 99 industry categories, totaling just under 5,000 governor-industry pairs.

So did donations influence which industries were declared essential?

The results surprised us: Industries that had donated to the governor’s campaign were indeed significantly more likely to receive an “essential” designation than those that did not. We also examined six other potential factors, such as the party affiliation of a governor, the percentage of a state’s vote that was gained by President Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and a state’s cumulative coronavirus caseload leading up to the time of the decision to declare. But even when controlling for these factors, campaign donations were among the only significant predictors of “essential” declarations. Donor industries were designated as essential at a 10 percent higher rate than similar industries that did not donate.

Because not all Americans have the ability to donate to campaigns, this suggests that during emergencies, some constituents’ concerns will be attended to more than others.

In further analyzing the data, we have found that the link between donations and being declared essential was especially likely for industries not covered by federal recommendations, as dictated by the Department of Homeland Security. In other words, the only industries for which campaign donations seemed to matter were those for which governors lacked some kind of standard to go by. Although industry leaders may dislike being locked down generally, they may have been less likely to blame the governor if he or she was following nationwide guidelines. Freed from worrying about blame, governors may have felt better able to pay less attention to political considerations.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that any type of quid pro quo is at play here. Indeed, these decisions are complex, with many constituencies, concerns and pressures involved. A governor might designate a particular industry as essential because it employs so many people in the state; an industry might donate because the governor already believes that industry is essential, vital to the state’s economy and the well-being of constituents. In other words, while we accounted for as many factors as we could, correlation is not necessarily causation. Still, the persistent correlation between donations and across-state differences in declarations does make it plausible that factors other than epidemiology and public health factored into governors’ decision-making.

A U.K. minister got into hot water over a donation. Here's what that tells us about business financing politics.

What does this suggest would contribute to better governance?

Our findings suggest two broad points about both democratic governance and disaster response. First, our findings underscore how useful federal guidelines are to state and local officials. While local information may help tailor disaster response to specific challenges, the political cover of national guidelines may insulate state and local officials from potentially corrupting influences.

Second, our findings suggest that unitary political decision-making has a key weakness. The debate between rule by plurality and rule by single leaders is as old as the U.S. founding. Some of the constitutional framers believed in the executive should be run by committee instead of a single president. Ultimately, the framers opted for a single executive because of the “energy and dispatch” that person would bring in times of crisis. Our findings illustrate the other side of the unitary coin: When it’s clear where the buck stops, a “buck” may become all the more valuable in making policy.

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

Jesse Crosson (@jcrohsaine) is an assistant professor of political science and program affiliate in urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Srinivas Parinandi is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.