A “Terrific Symbol”: Physical Personalization of Pandemic Relief Enhances Presidential Support

A “Terrific Symbol”: Physical Personalization of Pandemic Relief Enhances Presidential Support

By Henry E. Hale, George Washington University

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments worldwide—many that previously prioritized austerity—to approve large relief packages. Political economy tells us that politicians will try to profit from this electorally, but much remains unknown about precisely how pandemic relief might influence voting intentions. Then-President Donald Trump foregrounded this question early in the pandemic by becoming the first US president to physically place his name on Internal Revenue Service relief checks mailed to citizens. By leveraging a nationally representative survey whose timing achieved quasi-experimental variation in the receipt of payments both with and without Trump’s name physically on them, this study asks: Can a president successfully win support through physical personalization of the payments? Yes, the study finds. Receiving a physically personalized check in the mail is associated with a much greater self-reported likelihood of voting for the president, with gains mainly from partisan outgroups. No clear effect is found for unpersonalized electronic transfers. These findings withstand multiple robustness checks.

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