photograph of Mayor Pete at an even flipping pork chops in Iowa Pork apron
"Pete Buttigieg" by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

The second week of December saw another unusual wrinkle in an already-complicated Democratic primary season: grassroots donors began demanding refunds for political contributions made to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. Citing concerns about Buttigieg’s pursuit of high-dollar donors, defenses of corporate interests, and dismissive attitudes towards questions regarding these tactics, as well as specific revelations regarding his work at the management consulting group McKinsey and Company, some voters who had once considered Buttigieg an interesting newcomer to the national stage are changing their minds. Although the Buttigieg campaign has declined to release data on the number of refunds requested, the movement appears to be growing as the hashtag #RefundPete began trending online.

As it stands, presidential campaigns are only legally obligated to refund a campaign donation if that donation somehow violates legal requirements (such as if it exceeds the FEC’s contribution limits) – no provision requires refunds simply because donors have had a change of heart. However, might Buttigieg’s campaign have a moral obligation to dispense refunds? Or does the Latin warning “Caveat Emptor” – “let the buyer beware” – apply to political donations just as much as it might to property sales?

On the one hand, you might think that a political donation is simply a non-binding show of support – a flat contribution demonstrating a thin sort of sponsorship that does not commit either a donor or a candidate to anything further. Put differently, this view sees a campaign donation as simply a gift with no strings attached. Even though a voter might give money to one (or even multiple) campaigns, that would in no way indicate how the donor would end up voting at the ballot box and, conversely, the candidate can use that money at-will.

On the other hand, it might be that making a campaign contribution thereby initiates the donor into the candidate’s group of supporters, creating a net of (at least some) obligations between the donor and the candidate – such as the expectation that the candidate represent the will of the donors/supporters. On this view, a donation is more like a contract or a promise that a candidate must perpetually merit. Presumably, on this second, thicker view, if the candidate breaks the contract (perhaps by initially misrepresenting themselves or by changing their positions), then the donor could have grounds to demand repayment.

If these choices are right, then it would seem like the #RefundPete movement is assuming the second option to ground their reimbursement expectations: although someone may have contributed to Buttigieg when he was presenting himself as a progressive, small-town mayor looking for grassroots support, that same contributor could easily feel deceived when Buttigieg later adopts a more openly centrist position, chases elitist funding, and cavalierly ignores questions regarding that shift. Because of that perceived deception, former Buttigieg donors might think they are entitled to a refund.

However, it is the first option which seems like the most natural understanding of how campaign donations actually function. Given that there is a clear difference between contributing to a campaign and actively campaigning for a candidate (via rallying, door-knocking, sign-posting, or a myriad of other approaches), it’s not clear that a simple financial transaction (often done impersonally through an online payment portal) is able to automatically create the thick sorts of relational obligations between a candidate and his supporters required to ground a reimbursement request. That is to say, although campaign donors and campaign workers are both supporters of a candidate, they are not identical political agents (someone can easily be one without being the other). If former Buttigieg-donors also put in the effort to build relational ties with the Buttigieg campaign (thereby becoming Buttigieg-campaign-workers), then they might indeed have standing to expect some form of recompense for their wasted efforts (given what they now know); if those former donors are now simply regretting their choice to toss some “pocket change” at a candidate that they now don’t like, then it’s much less clear that they deserve the refunds they’re requesting. Indeed, this second scenario seems fairly familiar to any voter who has ever ended up dissatisfied with the results of representative democracy.

To be fair, it seems like much of the #RefundPete hashtag is motivated by the opportunity to make a political statement about Buttigieg’s campaign tactics, policy positions, and general demeanor: for example, the hashtag was sparked by a campaign worker for Elizabeth Warren and one of the inspirations of the #RefundPete hashtag had only donated $1 to help Buttigieg qualify for an early debate. Particularly in a race where grassroots support has become a defining wedge issue among Democratic candidates (as Bernie Sanders joked about in the December debate), such statements might be perfectly legitimate – but that’s a far cry from saying that the concept of a campaign donation refund is, in principle, legitimate.