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Don’t Be Fooled By Small Donations to Presidential Campaigns

It’s nice that Bernie Sanders and now Donald Trump claim their campaigns were fueled by small donors. But the influence of money is greatest in races down the ballot.

August 9, 2016

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Is $69 the new $27?

When Bernie Sanders ended his run for the Democratic nomination, the small donor narrative seemed over for this presidential cycle. But last week, small donors roared back, reportedly fueling Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee’s huge July fundraising take.

At a rally last week, Trump announced that he had raised $35.8 million from 517,000 small donors with an average contribution of $69.

As usual, Trump’s numbers don’t quite add up. The total July fundraising take was $82 million. The campaign announced it had raised $64 million from an email and snail mail campaign, the bulk from small donors. But was the $69 average from a $35.8 million subset of one of these amounts? No telling until the official numbers are filed with the Federal Elections Commission later this month.

Until then, Trump won’t let the details get in the way. He boasted at a Columbus, Ohio, rally that small donors were keeping him honest: “I’m going to do what’s right for you,” he said. "[Hillary Clinton] has got to do right for her donors."

Presidential candidates are like cobras. They draw focus. Campaign finance reporting fixates on them, leaving the impression that their fundraising efforts are emblematic or predictive of the true state of small donors and campaign finance. Meanwhile thousands of non-presidential political races are underway in 2016, and there is precious little analysis of their fundraising.

Presidential campaigns are not representative. First, the scale of the campaigns catapults them into a radically distinct level of the atmosphere. Second, the influence, corrupting or otherwise, of campaign contributions on the Executive Branch is different than on other political offices.

With their national scope, prospective Presidents have a much easier time reaching a small donor base large enough to fuel their campaign. Candidates attract national media attention which immediately opens up a continent-wide foundation of potential small donors. In 2012, 13 percent of the U.S. adult population, or roughly 30 million people, donated to a presidential candidate that year, according to a Pew survey. With that many potential donors to draw from, it’s perfectly possible for a presidential candidate to accumulate large sums from small donors. But a Senate, congressional, state or local candidate is going to have a much tougher time building a profile that would gain the notice of many small donors. The data bears this out. From 2010 to today, only four Senate candidates have raised more than 50 percent of their campaign war chests from small donors.

The scale of funding a run for the presidency also mitigates the corrupting influence of big money. When you’re trying to raise $2 billion to win a race, a person who maxes out is very, very nice but still represents only .04 percent of your overall take. The people who pour multi-million dollar sums into independent expenditures are even nicer. There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will likely return their calls in good time and invite them to a state dinner at some point. They can’t guarantee much more.

Moreover, presidential fundraising is so enormous that for every donor who supports issue X, a candidate is likely to get an equal amount from a donor opposing issue X. Consider, for example, campaign funding and trade deals. Organized labor has long resisted free trade deals and poured millions into supporting Democratic presidential candidates. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates have also raked in big bucks from industries devoted to free trade deals. That’s presidential politics.

Once a candidate becomes President, the scale of the Executive Branch also dilutes the influence of big donors. Policy making on the Executive Branch level is sprawling. Multiple cabinet-level agencies are often involved. Career civil servants have an impact. This is not to say that big money doesn’t help set the agenda or have access, but drawing a direct line between a donation and a policy outcome is highly unlikely.

Down ballot candidates live in a different world. Just ask the Koch brothers. As The New Yorker’s Jane Meyer reported earlier this year: “Republican governors, attorneys general, and state legislatures are key to their efforts to dominate policy in areas important to Koch Industries. `Recruit, groom, and elect’ is the Kochs’ approach, [an] insider says. `It is both a short-term and a long-term game.’”

As the Brennan Center’s Ian Vandewalker noted, “at the congressional level, the influence of big money on politics can be much stronger simply because the amounts involved are lower.”

Turns out for most elections $69 is not the new $27. As it happens, $2700 or so still speaks loud and clear.

(Photo: Thinkstock)

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