Once a key Republican constituency, U.S. doctors have shifted their campaign contributions to Democrats as more women enter the field and more doctors move from being small business owners to hospital employees.
The percentage of physicians donating to Republicans has fallen from almost 75 percent in 1996 to less than 50 percent in 2012, according to an analysis of campaign contributions published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Total contributions by doctors have increased about sevenfold over that time.
The support of more doctors may help Democrats win over voters and fend of criticism from Republicans that Obamacare is bad for patients and the practice of medicine, said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health. The backing of women doctors could be particularly helpful in seeking key female swing voters.
“You are going to have physician voices on TV and radio supporting Democratic presidential candidates who want to expand the role of government,” Blendon said in a telephone interview. “Republicans won’t have a monopoly on having physician leaders always on their side. Having more women leaders in medicine speaking on behalf of Democrats is going to give them more credibility.”
Campaign contributions by physicians increased to $189 million in 2012 from $20 million in 1992. About 9.4 percent of doctors made a donation greater than $200 in 2012 compared with 2.6 percent in 1992, according to the study published yesterday.
For much of the 1990s, total donations to both parties combined were about $20 million to $30 million per election cycle before jumping in 2004 during President George W. Bush’s re-election to $87 million and to $117 million in 2008 when President Barack Obama was elected.
The data include federally reported campaign contributions to presidential and congressional candidates and partisan organizations such as party committees and super political action committees from 1991 to 2012.
The researchers excluded a handful of doctors who gave more than $1 million, including Miriam Adelson, the wife of casino owner and Republican party donor Sheldon Adelson. She gave $43 million to Republicans in 2012, the authors said.
Though the trend has been toward Democrats over the past two decades, there have been swings in support for Republicans.
Republican contributions jumped to 75 percent of all doctors in 1996 during President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign and following the so-called “Hillary Care” debate over health reform led by Hillary Clinton in 1993. Republicans saw a resurgence in doctor campaign contributions again in 2010 as Congress debated the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare though support shifted back to Democrats in the following election cycle.
While campaign contributions in the general population have also been moving more toward Democrats, the trend has been greater among physicians during the last three election cycles, said David Rothman, a study author and director of the Center for the Study of Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University in New York.
A key factor in the rise in Democratic support is the increase in women physicians, Rothman said.
Almost half of medical school graduates in 2012 were women compared with about a third in 1982, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Women physicians were more likely to give to Democrats than women in the general population with just a quarter of female physicians giving money to Republicans in 2012, the study found.
Doctors were also polarized among specialties with higher paying specialists more likely to support Republicans. For example, 75 percent of spine surgeons, who have an average salary of more than $600,000, contributed to Republicans compared with less than a quarter of pediatricians, who had an average salary of $200,000.
That surprised the study’s authors since even the lowest paid physicians would still be considered upper income, a demographic that is solidly Republican, said Howard Rosenthal, a study author and professor of political science at New York University.
The study wasn’t able to determine whether certain specialties were more likely to attract people with a particular political stance or whether those professions cause doctors to lean toward one party over another. Among the 20 doctors serving in Congress, 16 are Republicans, Rothman said.
“What the data does is raise fascinating questions,” Rothman said. “It establishes the facts of the case. This is one of the first papers that really documents political participation and loyalty among physicians.”