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The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors, Thanks to Citizens United

Ten years later, the legacy of Citizens United is a system where the importance of wealthy donors is ballooning with no end in sight.

January 10, 2020

In much of the media, the money-in-polit­ics story of the 2018 midterms was massive engage­ment by small donors across the board, espe­cially as a weapon for Demo­crats in reac­tion to Donald Trump’s polar­iz­ing pres­id­ency. But that story obscured an even bigger increase in dona­tions of more than $100,000 from a tiny number of people.

Even after a surge in activ­ism, grass­roots energy and online fundrais­ing tools are still no match for the boost that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling gave to big money 10 years ago this month. On the contrary, the propor­tion of money coming from megadonors is rapidly increas­ing.

In Citizens United, the Court struck down limits on polit­ical spend­ing by corpor­a­tions and unions. The opin­ion argued that polit­ical money won’t corrupt politi­cians if it’s not given directly to them, paving the way for the creation of super PACs and unlim­ited outside spend­ing — money that does­n’t go directly to candid­ates but to groups that work to elect those candid­ates. These chan­nels are the vehicles that the biggest donors use to influ­ence who runs and who wins. 

To be sure, 2018 was a banner year for small dona­tions. Donors who gave $200 or less contrib­uted $1.4 billion to campaigns and polit­ical commit­tees, a more than 50 percent increase over the last midterm cycle. But donors who gave more than $100,000 together contrib­uted almost $2 billion, well over twice the total from 2014, result­ing in a much greater portion of elec­tion fund­ing coming from them than small donors.

There are fewer than 3,500 of these $100,000 donors — who are each giving well over the median Amer­ican house­hold’s annual income. They gave more money than at least 7 million donors of $200 or less. (Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion data does­n’t reveal the exact number of small donors, and it is likely signi­fic­antly higher than 7 million.)

Big donors play an even greater role in pres­id­en­tial elec­tion cycles. In the 2016 race, donors who gave more than $100,000 provided $2.7 billion — more than half the fund­ing. The $1 billion from small donors made up only slightly more than one fifth. There were fewer than 5,000 megadonors who gave $100,000 or more, but they provided a far greater portion than at least 5 million small donors combined.

The pattern is starker for donors who give more than $1 million. They were not a signi­fic­ant factor before Citizens United. But by 2016, donors of more than $1 million provided almost one-third of all federal elec­tion funds. In that elec­tion, a rari­fied group of just 400 people together put up $1.5 billion.

Big donors give in order to influ­ence policy accord­ing to their interests. Social scient­ists have collec­ted evid­ence that wealthy people — the kind who can afford to give more than $100,000 in a two-year elec­tion cycle — have differ­ent polit­ical views than other Amer­ic­ans. And politi­cians have a big incent­ive to support policies that will keep these big donors happy. 

Small donors — even in the millions — can’t compete with the influ­ence bought by unlim­ited giving from wealthy interests.

But the imbal­ance in our system brought on by Citizens United is not inev­it­able. Key reforms like public campaign finan­cing, which matches small dona­tions to boost the voice of regu­lar Amer­ic­ans, can make our demo­cracy healthy again.

Data analysis by Kevin Morris.