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BYU political scientists publish book on campaign finance

David Magleby reflects on 40 years at BYU

After finishing his final lecture at Brigham Young University this past December, Professor David Magleby walked out of the Kimball Tower lecture hall to find rows of students and fellow faculty members lining the halls. As he walked through the crowd and out of the building, students cheered and clapped.

For four decades, Magleby has inspired students and faculty members as one of BYU’s most influential political science professors. Teachers and students across campus were blessed by his mentorship, deep understanding and knowledge, dedication to hands-on education and love for the university.

Magleby’s time at BYU has been impressive. In 1982, he helped create the Utah Colleges Exit Poll. This program involved hundreds of college students across Utah in gathering data about voting in local, state and national elections. In 1998, he founded the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, a nonpartisan academic research center focused on increasing knowledge about the practice of American democracy. He served as both the dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences and the Political Science department chair during his career. He also wrote several books, ranging from American government to political finance.

Magleby’s most recent book tackles the complex issue of campaign finance. For more than a decade, Magleby and colleague Dr. Jay Goodliffe have studied the impact of campaign finance on U.S. presidential elections. After studying both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, they built a unique data set involving both large and small donors.

They found that a majority of campaigns in the U.S. receive funding from private organizations, making those who contribute more critically important to candidates. They found a growing trend that individual donors are motivated to give to one candidate primarily because they dislike another.

Magleby and Goodliffe graciously fielded our questions about their new book and Magleby’s service at BYU.

Q: How long have you been working on this book?

Magleby: For more than a decade. We started working on this during the 2008 election cycle. I was studying how money was being spent in the presidential and congressional races. As the cycle unfolded, I could see that there was something new with small donors in the Obama campaign and possibly the McCain campaign. We secured additional grants and did a survey of Romney and Obama donors at all giving levels in 2013.

Q: How did you gather your data?

Goodliffe: We fielded surveys of donors to presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. We used Federal Election Commission records to find potential donors, and after putting together all the donations from one donor, drew a random sample of those donors. We also obtained from the major party nominees (McCain, Obama, Romney) random samples of the small donors that they do not report to the Federal Election Commission. This is one of the unusual features of our data: we have both the public and non-public donors in our survey, so we are able to fully characterize the universe of presidential donors.

Q: What do you hope people take away from your book?

Magleby: Our book breaks new ground in showing just how important donors’ reactions to candidates are, and the donors’ dislike of a candidate is a powerful motivator to contribute to the other candidate. We also show the power of the internet to capture a mood swing, especially with small donors.

Q: What was it like to work with Professor Magleby on this project?

Goodliffe: He has a vision for the work, but is also focused on the details. His enthusiasm is contagious, both for his co-authors and the many research assistants that have worked on our projects.

Q: In some ways, this publication acts as a final hurrah for Dr. Magleby. What is something you learned from him?

Goodliffe: I learned to involve students more in my research. He is a great example of combining teaching and research, and I learned to think big, set an ambitious goal and figure out a way to accomplish it.

Q: Dr. Magleby, as you close this chapter of your life, what is one accomplishment you are most proud of from your time at BYU?

Magleby: I was advised by one of my mentors not to come to BYU when I was offered a position. His concern was that the professional reputation of the department would deter my professional success. The department was stronger than he knew, but we did have a need to professionalize, and over the now nearly four decades I have been here, we have become a highly regarded department.

Q: What lies ahead for you now that you’ve finished up at BYU?

Magleby: I am excited to be able to spend a bit more time on a couple of book projects and to continue to be involved in an American government text I have been a part of for more than twenty years. I also want to invest time and effort in family history, including writing my personal history. I want to better understand the context of [my ancestors’] lives and sacrifices.

Q: What will you miss most about being a professor at BYU?

Magleby: The students. I have loved my interactions with them. This includes students in large classes and students I have worked more closely with as teaching assistants, research assistants, on the KBYU-Utah Colleges Exit Poll and in BYU’s Washington Seminar. Rising to BYU’s higher standards is often initially challenging, but most of them are teachable and work hard and progress wonderfully. I have developed lasting relationships with students who I have had the blessing of them assisting with my teaching and research.

Magleby will be greatly missed both in the classroom and in the BYU community. You can find more thoughts from Magleby on his retirement in the Salt Lake Tribune feature. The book, “Who Donates in Campaigns?” was published by Cambridge University Press.

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