A year ago today, the Supreme Court released its opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC, striking down an important limit on political contributions. In so doing, the Court allowed a tiny group of donors to give over $11 million in the 2014 elections, and helped to usher in a more exclusive campaign finance system centered on very large donations.
At issue in McCutcheon were aggregate contribution limits—caps on donations to all candidates, parties, and PACs combined. Before McCutcheon, a donor could give no more than $123,200 per election cycle. Now that the limits have been struck down, a donor can give millions.
The decision had an immediate impact. Within five months, roughly 300 donors had combined to give more than $11 million in contributions that would have been illegal before McCutcheon. That newly unleashed spending—representing only a fraction of all that these donors gave—is more than the cost of an average winning Senate campaign.
But more notable than the amount of money spent is the fact that so few donors were able to spend it.
McCutcheon is just the latest Supreme Court decision to empower a small group of wealthy donors while leaving most Americans out of the process. 2010’s Citizens United ruling theoretically allowed anyone to give an unlimited amount to super PACs, but in practice 60 percent of super PAC spending has come from just 195 individuals and their spouses, according to a recent Brennan Center report. The McCutcheon decision allowed anyone to give millions in political donations. But most donors were not wealthy enough to reach the $123,200 limit before the decision, and are not wealthy enough to surpass it now. The Roberts Court has also struck down provisions that encouraged small donor giving and that assisted candidates facing wealthy, self-financed opponents.
These decisions have helped to narrow the universe of donors to a smaller and more exclusive group. In 2014, the top 100 donors gave almost as much as all 4.75 million small donors combined. And although these midterms were the costliest in history, the actual number of donors dropped for the first time in over 20 years. In other words, a shrinking pool is financing elections, and as elections become ever more expensive, that exclusive pool is becoming ever more important.
We almost certainly haven’t seen the full extent of McCutcheon’s impact, as the case was decided during a midterm election cycle. In 2016, spending records will be broken again, and big-money donors empowered by McCutcheon will continue to provide candidates and parties with unprecedented sums. Already, the pool of major donors has reportedly shrunk to a smaller and richer group.
Decisions like McCutcheon only serve to reinforce that trend. Although they only affect a small number of donors, their impact is anything but limited.