Hillary Clinton’s Women Donors Could Change Politics Forever

Female donors, especially first-time female donors like those Clinton is courting, have the potential to re-create campaigns, alter the face of government, and fund future elections.

Scott Morgan / Reuters

“I’m very proud that for the first time, a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.” Hillary Clinton has repeated versions of this statement during numerous public appearances, including at a Democratic debate last November. It’s not just a talking point; the number is a remarkable figure—and an unprecedented one—with implications beyond the success of Clinton’s own campaign. Across both the Democratic and Republican parties today, more than 70 percent of political donors continue to be men. The gender breakdown of Clinton’s donors indicates that women can be harnessed as a powerful force in a part of the political process where they’ve historically been underrepresented. In fact, their contributions have the potential to radically change the composition of candidates running for office—and ultimately that of elected officials.

While 60 percent of her total donors are women, according to Clinton’s campaign, Crowdpac, a startup that monitors campaign donations, has closely followed Clinton donors who have given $200 or more (the most “trackable” contribution level, also commonly categorized as “large donors”). Crowdpac found that 52 percent of Clinton’s donors at that level are women, making up 50.1 percent of the dollars contributed to her campaign thus far. Across all counts, Clinton is the first presidential candidate to ever have a predominance of female donors. (President Obama came close to an almost even split in 2012, when 44.6 percent of his large donors were women, also based on Crowdpac figures.) What’s more, a significant fraction of Clinton’s large donors—more than a third—are first-time donors to any kind of political campaign.

Previous election cycles and academic research show that individuals who donate to a political campaign once are not only more engaged in the political process but are also more likely to donate again, either to the same candidate or to others at the local, state, and federal levels. In data that Crowdpac has collected since 2004, of all first-time donors to political campaigns, 52 percent went on to contribute to a second campaign. Additionally, of the first-time donors to Obama’s campaign in 2008, 27 percent gave to his 2012 presidential campaign, and 37 percent gave again to other campaigns. That means that first-time women donors participating in both Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns have the potential to make a powerful impact on political campaigns going forward: Women’s contributions can both influence candidates on certain issues and fund future elections.

“All political activities, starting with voting first, they are all habits,” says Grant Reeher, a political-science professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School who studies campaign finance. “Once you make a contribution, you’ve gotten over whatever hurdle that was for you, and you’re more likely to do it again. Making donations also tends to get you more interested in the process.” As a result, Reeher says, when first-time donors are effectively targeted, their contributions can have massive effects on a candidate’s subsequent campaigns: “If you think about Obama, one of the things you saw from 2012 is he went back again to his donor base in 2008 and really drew on that and then expanded on it. He was an even better fundraiser in 2012.”

Moreover, since donating to him, 45 percent of Obama’s first-time women donors in 2008 and 2012 have donated a second time to another campaign. If this trend holds, especially as Clinton and Sanders bring more women into the fold, a portion of those female donors will continue to contribute money to future presidential campaigns and to political candidates at all levels.

At this point in the 2012 election, according to Crowdpac, 36 percent of large donors were women (28,370 people), and in this election, that figure has risen to 39 percent (32,468 people)—inching closer to a 50-50 split. Women contributors have a strong presence in both Clinton’s and Sanders’s campaigns, but when it comes to large donors, Clinton has a much higher proportion than any other candidate.

“Only a few members of Congress receive more than half of their donations from women,” according to The New York Times. “All are women and Democrats, like Representative Jan Schakowsky (the highest percentage).” The longstanding nature of the campaign-contribution gender gap is what Reeher deems “a lingering artifact, in part, of traditional gender roles still in our society” and can be tied to a number of factors, including the corresponding gender wage gap and even record-keeping that attributes a couple’s donations to the male head of household. Historically, wealthy male donors have also been known to leverage their spouses to evade caps on individual contributions and thus max out twice when giving to specific candidates. As such, many women, even when they’ve donated large amounts, have been linked with the aims of their husbands rather than perceived as independent donors. But that’s changing.

According to Reeher and Jessica O’Connell, the executive director of Emily’s List, there are two key drivers behind the rise in women donors, especially for Clinton. First, for many, supporting Clinton represents a chance to make a social statement and elect the nation’s first woman president. Second, but equally as important, women voters see backing Clinton as a way to make women’s issues—including equal pay, paid family leave, and access to health care—priorities. “Issues that impact women are front and center,” says O’Connell, “which is why we’re seeing more women step up to ensure more women’s voices are at the table.”

Clinton’s history of speaking out on women’s issues, on a national scale, can be traced back for decades, a legacy that has made her, “emblematic of being a woman in politics” with “an identity that’s about breaking gender barriers,” says Reeher. “When Hillary went to Beijing as first lady and said women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, that was such a breakthrough on the world stage,” notes Glenna Matthews, the co-author of Running as a Woman: Gender and Power in American Politics. Additionally, she says, “[W]omen have learned that women’s issues are the most salient to women politicians. At crunch time, if something has to give, it’s been women’s issues.” Matthews cites empirical research that backs up this belief and demonstrates that women in Congress are much more likely to reliably support and sponsor legislation related to women’s issues compared with their male counterparts. (Of course, not all voting-age women remember Beijing, and there have been marked differences between how older and younger women have related to Clinton. Many younger voters are less interested in breaking the glass ceiling and seemingly more drawn to Sanders’s especially progressive platform.)

On the right, Carly Fiorina is less likely to gain the same degree of support from women that Clinton has achieved, says Reeher, especially given her more recent entry into politics as well as her conservative views on topics that are important to women—like her stark opposition to Planned Parenthood. But even Fiorina has seen a slight boost in the proportion of her large donors who are women, marginally outpacing the other Republican candidates in this regard.

In the past, fundraising has been a greater struggle for female candidates than for male candidates. And even in cases where women are able to bring in similar amounts of money, there are still significant structural barriers they need to overcome in order to do so. Some of the main challenges women politicians point to are the advantages that incumbent candidates, most of whom continue to be men, have in gaining financial backing. Female politicians also highlight the exclusive connections to specific networks that male candidates often have access to. Plus, broadly, there is a mistaken assumption—that to win an election, women don’t just need to raise as much as male competitors; they need to raise more—that can tamper enthusiasm both by and for candidates. As more and more women join the donor class, they are directly addressing one of the main problems women candidates face: They’re helping expand the network that candidates draw from. “I think contributions do matter to the process—it’s not a one-for-one effect, but there’s also no doubt that candidates are aware of where their support is coming from,” says Reeher. “If you’re changing the composition of those contributions, then that is going to matter to the political process.” But, he is quick to add, “the thing that you also need to change the political dial is the composition of the actual elected officials.”

Despite comprising more than 50 percent of America’s population, in the Senate today women hold just 20 percent of the seats, and in the House, 19.3 percent. It’s even worse at the executive level: Out of 50 states, just five have female governors. More women contributing money could change this dramatically and put more women in positions of power—including the presidency.