Small Donors Still Aren't as Important as Wealthy Ones

Policy decisions, like the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, affect where campaign money comes from.

A Bernie Sanders supporter holds a sign outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Reuters)

Small-dollar donors have been celebrated in this election. Senator Bernie Sanders mounted a surprisingly competitive primary campaign fueled by their contributions and promoted his reliance on their dollars as a signature campaign issue. Donald Trump, too, has attracted legions of small-dollar contributors: Although major Republican donors appear divided over Trump, he has had more success with small donors than any prior Republican nominee, raising as much as $100 million from individuals giving less than $200 each. But with Sanders’ campaign having ended in defeat, and Trump’s nearing its conclusion, does 2016 really herald a new age of small-donor influence in politics?

Pundits have argued that the possibility of using the internet to rely on millions of small donors means that campaign donation limits are irrelevant—that candidates’ ability to depend on readily available small-donor money means we don’t need to cap the biggest donations to restore balance to our political system. But a historical review of data describing all the money individuals have put into the campaign-finance system—whether to candidates, parties, or other political committees like super PACs—suggests this analysis is wrong. Despite growth in the number of small donors over time, the money they give has made up a smaller and smaller share of total individual contributions over the last two decades. The power of the internet is no match for the unlimited giving allowed by today’s lax campaign-finance rules.

While the success of Trump and Sanders with small donors may seem new, it is actually the culmination of more than a decade of advances in online fundraising. In 2004, Howard Dean’s success in raising small online donations led to claims that internet strategies, such as email solicitations, were “reinventing campaign fundraising.” By the end of that election, George W. Bush’s army of one million small donors was 10 times bigger than contributor rolls of the major-party candidates of 1996 and 2000. In 2008, the press lauded Barack Obama’s “startling success” at “ushering in a new digital era.” Then Obama’s 2012 campaign obliterated previous records, with 3.6 million people giving small amounts.

But this obscures the broader trend: The truth is that small donors aren’t as important to campaigns as they were before internet fundraising became popular, while the very biggest donors have become significantly more prominent in recent years.

Throughout the 1990s, small donors giving $350 or less—in 2016 dollars—provided more than half of all the individual contributions to candidates, parties, and other political committees over the entire course of each election cycle. In 2004, the year many commentators began to talk about the promise of the internet, such donors were responsible for 41 percent of all individual contributions. This year, through the end of the second quarter, they were responsible for just 34 percent of the total. And while large donors giving more than $100,000 supplied less than 10 percent of the money throughout the 1990s, by the end of this June that relative handful of donors provided a whopping 23 percent of all individual contributions.

Although our data do not include this summer’s surge in small-donor contributions to Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, there is little reason to think it would change the analysis. While Trump has apparently improved upon prior GOP nominees’ small-donor fundraising, the $100 million he has reportedly taken in from small donors is still significantly less than what Obama raised from them in 2012.

In fact, other developments since June indicate even more money is coming from large donors. The biggest donors of 2012, conservatives Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, just started giving to super PACs last month and have reportedly pledged $75 million. Congress recently increased limits on contributions to parties several times over, allowing candidates and parties to accept bigger six-figure checks than in 2012, and a recent analysis showed that just 10 individuals and couples have given approximately $200 million to super PACs through the end of August, twice the amount Trump’s small donors have reportedly provided.

The story of the past two decades is not as simple as the rich getting richer, and therefore having more to give. Rather, their alternately rising and falling share of giving suggests that policy choices—from congressional reforms to Supreme Court decisions—have also had a significant impact on where campaign funding comes from.

By the 2000 election, big donors had learned to give large contributions through the “soft money” loophole, which permitted both parties to take donations in unlimited amounts. But in 2002, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold law, banned soft money, blocking the ability of the superwealthy to make unlimited contributions. In the next two presidential election cycles, the percentage of campaign money coming from big donors was cut in half.

Although McCain-Feingold successfully checked the rise of the very biggest donors, it was not designed to boost small donors. On the contrary, it doubled the limits on contributions to candidates, making it easier for affluent donors to give in a middle range. The long-term decline in the share of campaign funding provided by small donors continued after the law went into effect.

But McCain-Feingold’s achievement in reducing the relative power of large donors appears to have been reversed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which held that corporate and union expenditures on elections cannot be limited as long as the spending is independent of candidates. That ruling paved the way for the creation of super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions for their political spending if money is not contributed to candidates.

Not surprisingly, the next two presidential election cycles saw a huge increase in the share of spending coming from the biggest donors, with a concurrent loss of share from small donors. Midterm elections show a similar pattern. The vast majority of the money from the biggest donors goes into super PACs, while a greater share of the contribution-limited funds raised directly by candidates and parties comes from donors of smaller amounts.

Despite a few highly visible candidates raising much of their money from small donors this year, the footprint of the large donor is getting bigger and bigger, while the share from small donors continues to shrink. Candidates will raise money where they can most easily find it. For the majority of candidates running for federal office, particularly those without access to the free media coverage that presidential candidates receive, that means going to big donors first, even in the internet age.

The biggest problem with big-donor dominance is not necessarily that those donors will choose the winners. Rather, it’s that donors who can provide large contributions are likely to have disproportionate influence over policy, protecting their own interests regardless of what’s good for the public. And candidates’ need to either be rich or attract rich donors acts as a barrier preventing regular people from running for office and representing their communities.

For better or worse, fundraising data from the last two decades show that changing the law can affect donor dynamics. Instituting new restrictions may reduce the influence of the biggest donors. And even more importantly, passing reforms that boost small donors, like public financing, can give candidates greater incentives to focus on fundraising from their non-wealthy constituents. While Congress has done nothing to change candidates’ fundraising incentives since 2002, there has been movement at the state and local level. In New York City, for instance, small donations are matched with public funds, so long as the candidate agrees to strict fundraising limits. The result has been transformative, leading to some of the highest rates of small-donor contributions in the country: Since 2001, small donors, aided by the public match, have provided $6 of every $10 in city council races.

The rise of large donors and waning influence of ordinary citizens is not inevitable. The enthusiasm among small donors for Trump and Sanders, who have both railed against the influence of big money in politics, shows an appetite for change. It also points the way forward: With reform, more and more varied candidates across the political spectrum may rely on small donors rather than just, or even mostly, the very rich. But without a change in federal law, there is no killer app that can bring balance to the system.