Jonathan Bernstein asks:

I’ve said in the past that I thought the worst place to donate money is to a president running for re-election, but I’m starting to think that the second-worst choice for liberals looking to give money in 2012 will be to Elizabeth Warren — because she’s going to have more than enough. Which raises the question: where should liberals be donating right now? What candidate do you think (1) deserves support from liberals and (2) is in a position where the money over the next couple months could make a difference?

(Not asked of conservatives because giving money to a candidate in a competitive presidential nomination race makes lots of sense. Also, because I hadn’t thought of it yet. Maybe next week).

In a way he almost answer his own question. Or rather, he suggests how it should be rephrased. The question I would ask is: "Why do you give money to politics? What is the outcome you seek?"

I can think of at least three:

To influence the ideological character of a given political party, and by extension the polity.

If this is your goal then absolutely the best place to give is in primary elections. What you need to do is to make sure that one party or the other nominates candidates that you find ideologically compatible then hope that if you throw enough of them against the wall some will stick. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the victories on both sides (Barack Obama, Rand Paul) vastly overwhelm the defeats (Ned Lamont, Sharron Angle) and even the defeats can still strongly influence intra-party dynamics; in fact, a willingness to lose with your preferred horse may have more intra-party influence;

To elect as many members of one political party to office.

I think this is more what Bernstein is talking about. My personal feeling on this is that by far the best place to give your dollars is to the party committees – the "NC," the "SCC," and the "CCC." These people are the highly-trained and highly-knowledgable political professionals; given a large pool of resources, they will probably know better than you exactly where your dollars can best be matched with need and opportunity. If you care nothing (at that particular moment) about the specific ideological content of one party versus the other, and are solely concerned with getting as many Ds or Rs into office, then this is the route for you.

To satisfy some purely personal desire.

This is why you give to Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, or maybe Darcy Burner, etc. You identify with a candidate or their cause and enjoy knowing that you supported them.

There are also more mercenary reasons to give, like buying access, but in terms of small, individual, motivated political donors, this is where I think the decision tree leads.