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Large Donors’ Outsize Role in the Midterm Elections

A recently published report from Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund details the outsize role large donors had on this year’s midterm election.

December 2, 2014

In a recently published report, The Dominance of Big Money in the 2014 Congressional Elections, Demos and U.S. PIRG Education Fund describe the significant role played by large donors in the recent midterm elections. Seven out of every ten dollars contributed to federal candidates, parties, PACs, and Super PACs in the 2013–2014 election cycle came from large donors, defined as those giving $200 or more. The proportion of large donor contributions to candidates alone was even higher, at 84 percent.

Even these numbers, the authors warn, mask the true extent of certain large donors’ influence. Over one-third of the money raised by Super PACs this cycle was contributed by 50 individuals and their spouses, and some candidates with millions in contributions reported “few or even no dollars” received from small donors. For instance, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan took in $5 million with no small donations.

And as the Brennan Center found in its analysis of competitive U.S. Senate races, the top-spending super PACs get less than one percent of their individual contributions from small donations. Their average large-donor contributions are in the six- and seven-figure range.

Moreover, none of these figures include “dark money” spent by politically active nonprofit and trade organizations that are not required to disclose the sources of their funding. These groups accounted for almost a third of nonparty outside spending—approximately $100 million—in this year’s 11 most competitive Senate races. Because the identities of these groups’ donors are unknown, it is possible that the percentage of spending coming from contributors who gave more than $200 is even higher than the Demos report suggests.

Recent polls, highlighted by the Demos and U.S. PIRG report, also suggest that voters are well aware of the disproportionate political influence exerted by the wealthy. Every Voice recently found that only 11 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans believe that constituents have more influence on elected officials than special interest groups, lobbyists, or donors. In a May 2014 CBS News poll, 75 percent of respondents agreed that wealthy Americans are better able to influence elections than others.

Democracy can’t function when the public doesn’t believe in their ability to affect politics. Our best bet to address the misalignment between voters’ preferences and those of their representatives is a public financing system with matching funds for small donors’ contributions. Matching small donations amplifies the voices of average people, giving them more meaningful political power.

Money in politics was a campaign issue in the midterms, and the continuing rise of big-money donors, outside spending, and dark money will only intensify the debate. This year’s elections also saw a series of campaign finance reform wins. Despite the ascendancy of big money, average Americans still wield power over policy choices, and we should all steer elections toward proven reforms like public financing.  

(Photo: Thinkstock)