Think Tank Employees Tend to Support Democrats

All but the most conservative organizations give more to liberal candidates.

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Though their immediate influence is mostly concentrated within the beltway, think tanks in the United States impact politics nationwide and even worldwide. These institutions hire leading academics, as well as former diplomats, policymakers, and military personnel to study and formulate solutions to pressing national and global policy problems. Representatives from think tanks often testify in congressional hearings and provide depth to news stories with their expert insights. And though many such organizations maintain nonpartisan identities, the employees naturally have their own political leanings. A U.S. News analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, suggests that employees at all but the most conservative organizations gave far more financial support to Democrats than Republicans over the last four election cycles. During this time period (2003 through 2010), Republicans and Democrats each controlled both houses of Congress for four years, and Americans also elected both a Republican and a Democratic president.

Below is a list of the amounts of campaign contributions by employees of some of the top U.S. think tanks, broken down by giving to Republican or conservative candidates and organizations versus those that are Democratic or liberal. The totals go as far back as the 2004 election cycle, the first election cycle during which soft money contributions were illegal. "Soft money" refers to money given to the party as a whole, for purposes such as "party-building activities" and issue ads. These contributions were unlimited and largely unregulated. The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act ended this practice.

Organization Political Orientation 2003-2010 Donations GOP % Dem % 
Brookings Institution Liberal 239,229 1.20% 97.60%
Center for Strategic and International Studies Centrist 169,620 12.30% 83.80%
Center for American Progress Liberal 164,227 0.30% 98.80%
RAND Corporation Centrist 160,525 8.80% 91.20%
Council on Foreign Relations Centrist 146,849 30.20% 69.60%
Hoover Institution Conservative 146,830 88.40% 9.60%
Cato Institute Conservative 127,800 99.60% 0.00%
American Enterprise Institute Conservative 85,495 93.00% 0.60%
Urban Institute Liberal 79,259 0.00% 100.00%
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Centrist 53,175 0.90% 99.10%
Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Centrist 51,895 14.50% 85.50%
Kaiser Family Foundation Centrist 49,500 0.00% 98.00%
Center for a New American Security Centrist 42,750 5.40% 94.60%
Aspen Institute Centrist 35,000 21.60% 78.40%
U.S. Institute of Peace Centrist 32,661 0.80% 94.20%
Heritage Foundation Conservative 31,646 100.00% 0.00%
New America Foundation Centrist 23,301 5.10% 94.90%
Third Way Liberal 11,850 0.00% 100.00%
Congressional Research Service Centrist 10,422 0.00% 100.00%
Institute for Policy Studies Liberal 5,850 0.00% 100.00%
National Bureau of Economic Research Centrist 1,750 0.00% 100.00%

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

(Note: These figures may not provide a complete accounting of the campaign spending habits of these institutions' employees, as donors are not required to provide their employment information, and may also significantly misspell or otherwise misstate the names of their employers. Data only reflects all contributions $200 and greater. Row percentages may not total 100 percent due to donations to third-party candidates and nonpartisan PACs. Certain issue, advocacy, and professional organizations also are not required to disclose their donors.)

Clear political inclinations underlie the work of some think tanks. The Center for American Progress, for example, was founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta and is considered one of the nation's leading progressive organizations. Meanwhile, former Vice President Dick Cheney sits on the Board of Trustees at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation claims former Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes as a trustee, as well as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a leading figure of conservatism, as a "patron." The campaign contributions from employees of these institutions reflect these biases; Center for American Progress staffers support Democratic candidates and liberal causes almost exclusively, and those from the aforementioned conservative organizations tend to support Republicans and conservative PACs.

However, employee contributions from some of the top moderate think tanks skew decidedly to the left. For example, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the RAND Corporation, two of the policy institutes with the most generous employees, have 84 percent and 91 percent Democratic giving records, respectively. The two think tanks with the most bipartisan spread of campaign contributions--the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute--still have seen more than two-thirds of their employees' reported contributions going toward Democrats and liberal PACs since 2003. Even employees of the Congressional Research Service, sometimes called "Congress' think tank," have given 100 percent of their donations since 2003 to Democratic candidates and committees.