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Small Donor Public Financing Could Advance Race and Gender Equity in Congress

A small donation-matching public financing system, as outlined in H.R. 1, could help reduce long standing fundraising disparities for women of color candidates running for the U.S. House.

Published: October 15, 2020

Introduction

Voters’ demands for a more representative democracy have grown louder than ever. In 2018, they elected women and people of color to Congress in historic numbers. footnote1_nx2obl3 1 Li Zhou, “A Historic New Congress Will Be Sworn in Today,” Vox, January 3, 2019, https://www.vox.com/2018/12/6/18119733/congress-diversity-women-election-good-news. And in 2020, more women of color are running for Congress than ever before. footnote2_6edkyha 2 Kelly Ditmar, “What You Need to Know About the Record Numbers of Women Candidates in 2020,” Center for American Women and Politics, August 10, 2020, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/election-analysis/record-numbers-women-candidates-2020.

This progress deserves applause, especially considering the longstanding barriers women and people of color face as candidates in raising the funds to compete. These barriers help explain why, even with the gains of 2018, these groups continue to be significantly underrepresented among congressional candidates.

The problem is most acute for women of color. Over the past four general elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, women of color raised less on average than all other candidates, relied more on small donations than their white and/or male opponents, and made up only 4 percent of candidates even though they constitute nearly 25 percent of the country’s population, this analysis finds. footnote3_bcmdzh1 3 Competitiveness of a given contest is a major driver of fundraising; and women of color tend to run in less competitive contests than other candidates. See Sarah Bryner and Grace Haley, Race, Gender, and Money in Politics: Campaign Finance and Federal Candidates in the 2018 Midterms, Peter G. Peterson Foundation U.S. 2050, March 15, 2019, 4, https://www.pgpf.org/sites/default/files/US-2050-Race-Gender-and-Money-in-Politics-Campaign-Finance-and-Federal-Candidates-in-the-2018-Midterms.pdf. (While complete fundraising and candidate demographic data for 2020 are not yet available, they are not expected significantly to change these findings. footnote4_rxs9mc1 4 Analysis of the most recent congressional fundraising data available — from the 2020 primaries — indicates that women, especially women of color, raised less money on average than other candidates. See Sarah Bryner, "Race and Gender Diversity in the 117th Congress," Center for Responsive Politics, June 30, 2020, Table 2, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/reports/gender-and-race-2020. )

“It’s really hard for women to run,” Veronica Escobar, a Latina House member elected in 2018, told the Texas Tribune. “And I think it’s even harder for women of color because fundraising is really such a huge component of running in a congressional race and many of us have limited networks.” footnote5_4fwslge 5 Abby Livingston and Julián Aguilar, “Texas Posed to Send Its First Two Latinas to Congress,” Texas Tribune, March 6, 2018, https://www.texastribune.org/2018/03/06/texas-poised-send-first-two-latinas-congress/.

This study shows that a small donation-matching public financing program could help minimize the disadvantages faced by women of color running for office — and enable all candidates to focus more on constituents and less on large donors while still raising competitive sums. Small donor public financing is a key provision of the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a sweeping democracy reform bill that the House of Representatives passed in 2019. Participation in the program would be voluntary, available to candidates who agree to lower contribution limits and other requirements. In jurisdictions that already offer similar programs, public financing has increased donor diversity and candidates’ outreach to their constituents. footnote6_218ns7e 6 Elisabeth Genn et al., Donor‍‍‍‍ Diver‍‍‍‍sity Thr‍‍‍‍ough Public Matching Funds, Brennan Center for Justice, May 14, 2012, 13, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_DonorDiversity-public-matching-funds.PDF; Michael J. Malbin, Peter W. Brusoe, and Brendan Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Democracy: New York City’s Matching Funds as a Model for the Nation and States,” Election Law Jour‍‍‍‍nal 11, no. 1 (2012):14, http://www.cfinst.org/pdf/state/nyc-as-a-model_elj_as-published_march2012.pdf.

Key findings of this analysis of the past four general elections for the U.S. House of Representatives include the following. (The numbers of candidates of color for the U.S. Senate have been too low to enable a similar, statistically sound analysis.):

Women and people of color are significantly underrepresented among House candidates.

  • Women made up just 26 percent of candidates, compared to 51 percent of the general population. Even if women kept winning at their unprecedented rate in 2018, it would take more than three decades for their numbers in Congress to reflect their 51 percent share of the general population, the Center for Responsive Politics found. footnote7_x2b22p8 7 Bryner and Haley, Race, Gender, and Money in Politics, 3.
  • People of color were less than 20 percent of candidates, though they are 40 percent of the nation.

Women and people of color running for the House depend more on small donations.

Small donor public financing could reduce race and gender inequities among candidates.

  • H.R. 1’s small donation-matching program especially helps candidates who face systemic disadvantages in accessing large donors and rely more on small donors, though all candidates stand to benefit.
  • Under the reform, the average female candidate over the past four general House elections could have raised over $600,000 more per cycle, while the average male candidate could have raised nearly $445,000 more. The average candidate of color could have raised $427,000 more per cycle, while the average white candidate could have raised $309,000 more.
  • The reform could particularly empower women of color, the most disadvantaged group when it comes to traditional fundraising. In the 2018 cycle, H.R. 1 could have reduced the average fundraising deficit of women of color candidates by 34 percent.

Elected officials and constituents also benefit from small donor public financing.

  • Officeholders who have participated in public financing say it frees more of their time for governance and better aligns their fundraising efforts with representing constituents.
  • The reform brings more people into the political process as donors and increases the socioeconomic diversity of donors compared to the traditional campaign finance system. footnote10_h6wiw4a 10 Malbin, Brusoe, and Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Democracy,” 14; Genn et al, Donor‍‍‍‍ Diver‍‍‍‍sity Thr‍‍‍‍ough Public Matching Funds, 13; Michael J. Malbin and Michael Parrot, “Small Donor Empowerment Depends on the Details: Comparing Matching Fund Programs in New York and Los Angeles,” The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics 15, no. 2 (2017): 43, https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/for.2017.15.issue-2/for-2017-0015/for-2017-0015.pdf; and Bergen Smith, Hamsini Sridharan, and Laura Curlin, “2018 Fair Elections in Berkeley,” MapLight, December 19, 2019, https://maplight.org/story/2018-fair-elections-in-berkeley/.

End Notes

Women and People of Color Are Significantly Underrepresented in Congressional Elections

Among general election candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives from 2012 through 2018, women and people of color were significantly underrepresented compared to their share of the American population, according to an analysis based on data compiled by Emory University political scientist Bernard L. Fraga. footnote1_z0rayn2 1 For a detailed explanation of the coding methodology Bernard L. Fraga used to create the federal candidate demographic dataset, see Bernard L. Fraga, “Separating Race and Party in Congressional Elections (Working Paper)”, June 9, 2020, 1 (Appendix), https://www.dropbox.com/s/854svzc8pju75fo/RacePartyCandidates_060920.pdf?dl=0. See also Bernard L. Fraga, “The Next Congress Will Probably Be the Most Diverse Ever,The Washington Post, June 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/06/22/next-congress-will-probably-be-most-diverse-ever/. The analysis yielded the following findings:

  • Women of color were least represented, making up only 4 percent of all House candidates, despite comprising almost 25 percent of the population.
  • Women were just 26 percent of House candidates, though they constitute 51 percent of the nation’s population.
  • People of color were less than 20 percent of House candidates, though they make up 40 percent of the nation’s population.

To be sure, Congress has seen an upward trend in racial, ethnic, and gender diversity over the past two decades. footnote2_bt7bwgo 2 Kristen Bialik, “For the Fifth Time in a Row the New Congress Is the Most Racially and Ethnically Diverse Ever,” Pew Research Center, February 8, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/08/for-the-fifth-time-in-a-row-the-new-congress-is-the-most-racially-and-ethnically-diverse-ever/; Center for American Women and Politics, “History of Women in the U.S. Congress,” date accessed October 2, 2020, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/history-women-us-congress. Gains in gender diversity reflect a marked increase in women of color candidates. From 2012 to 2018, their numbers increased by 68 percent while the number of white female candidates increased by 33 percent. footnote3_rnnhfcg 3 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of demographic data for House general election candidates from 2012 to 2018, which was compiled by Emory University Political Scientist Bernard L. Fraga, and Federal Election Commissions contributions data over the same time period.

Women now comprise nearly a quarter of representatives in the House, a record high. footnote4_rhnro64 4 Drew Desilver, “A Record Number of Women Will Be Serving in the New Congress,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/18/record-number-women-in-congress/. In 2018, Black women surmounted both race and gender barriers in record numbers and made up 21.6 percent of all women who won in the House. footnote5_uprkbla 5 Higher Heights Leadership Fund and Center for American Women and Politics, Black Women in American Politics, 2019, 8, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/black-women-politics-2019.pdf; Glynda C. Carr, “Black Women Candidates: Debunking the Historic Electability Myth,” Democracy Journal Summer, no. 57 (2020), https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/57/black-women-candidates-debunking-the-historic-electability-myth/. And in 2020, more women are running for Congress than in 2018, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. footnote6_ecq3q49 6 Ditmar, “What You Need to Know About the Record Numbers of Women Candidates in 2020”.

The 2018 midterms were a strong indication that when women and people of color run, voters often will elect them. The American electorate is diversifying rapidly, according to the Pew Research Center, with people of color projected to be a third of all voters — their largest share ever — in the 2020 federal elections. footnote7_howxs9a 7 Anthony Cilluffo and Richard Fry, “An Early Look at the 2020 Electorate,” Pew Research Center, January 30, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/an-early-look-at-the-2020-electorate/. Women, who have turned out to vote in higher numbers than men in every presidential election since 1964, will continue to be a driving force. footnote8_n7umlc9 8 Laurence Arnold, “The Gender Gap in Voting,” Bloomberg, June 4, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/quicktake/gender-gap.

Yet much progress remains to be made before Congress reflects the diversity of the electorate. Compared to the 2016 House general elections, racial and gender diversity increased only slightly in 2018. The share of candidates of color increased from 21 percent to 23 percent, while the share of female candidates increased from 20 percent to 28 percent. footnote9_8zihqmf 9 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of demographic data for House general election candidates from 2012 to 2018, which was compiled by Emory University Political Scientist Bernard L. Fraga. White men are still overrepresented in the current Congress, making up 90 percent of Republican House members and 38 percent of Democratic House members — or 62 percent of the House in total — as opposed to only 30 percent of the population. footnote10_0k9u4oe 10 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of demographic data for House general election candidates from 2012 to 2018, which was compiled by Emory University Political Scientist Bernard L. Fraga. White men make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to U.S. Census American Community Survey 5-year data from 2014 to 2018.

Partisan disparities have limited progress for women's representation in Congress. Over the past three decades, the number of women elected as Democrats has risen (though still not to parity with women’s share of the general population), while the number elected as Republicans has stagnated. footnote11_y4aqwml 11 Bryner and Haley, Race, Gender, and Money in Politics, 3. Even if women kept winning congressional contests at the unprecedented rate seen in 2018, it would still take more than three decades for them to reach the 51 percent mark they hold in the general population, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. footnote12_ai1i7ra 12 Bryner and Haley, Race, Gender, and Money in Politics, 3.

Progress for people of color, an ever-growing portion of the electorate, has been even slower when it comes to representation in Congress. footnote13_8s8iy4z 13 Cilluffo and Fry, “An Early Look at the 2020 Electorate.” Black women may have shattered records in 2018, but gains in their political representation were incremental: they make up 8 percent of the population but only 5 percent of the House today. footnote14_rlx37wp 14 Higher Heights and Center for American Women and Politics, Black Women in American Politics, 8. Latino Americans, the largest minority group in the United States, make up 18 percent of the population, but only 8 percent of the members of Congress. footnote15_glnk88o 15 Suzanne Gamboa, “Latinos Show Record Gains in Congress, Though Numbers Are Still Low,” NBC News, November 15, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/latinos-show-record-gains-congress-though-numbers-are-still-low-n936781. Again, partisan disparities limit progress. People of color make up 27 percent of the House, though they are 40 percent of the population — and 90 percent of these representatives are Democrats. footnote16_twdno09 16 Jennifer E. Manning, Membership of the 116th Congress: A Profile, Congressional Research Service, July 22, 2020, 7-8, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45583.pdf; Bryner, Race and Gender Diversity in the 117th Congress; see also Center for Responsive Politics, “Reelection Rates Over the Years,” OpenSecrets.org, date accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/reelect.php.

In the 2020 House elections, women and people of color continue to face limited opportunities to gain ground, due to high rates of incumbents running for reelection — with a typical 91 percent win rate — and persistent fundraising barriers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. footnote17_94x0w2p 17 Bryner, "Race and Gender Diversity in the 117th Congress"; see also Center for Responsive Politics, “Reelection Rates Over the Years,” OpenSecrets.org, date accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/reelect.php. Open seat races offer women of color the best chance to win, a study by Political Parity found. footnote18_c3s0p1j 18 Shauna Shames, Where Women Win: Closing the Gap in Congress, Political Parity, October 2017, 8, https://www.politicalparity.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Where-Women-Win-Final.pdf.

Voters want the status quo to change. Recent polls show that most Americans are dissatisfied with how democracy is working and want to see more progress toward racial and gender equity. footnote19_ur3jcer 19 Jonathan M. Ladd, Joshua A. Tucker, and Sean Kates, 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, date accessed October 2, 2020, http://aicpoll.com/; Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Anna Brown, and Kiana Cox, Race in America 2019, Pew Research Center, April 9, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/; Rachel Minkin, Most Americans Support Gender Equality, Even If They Don’t Identify as Feminists, Pew Research Center, July 14, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/14/most-americans-support-gender-equality-even-if-they-dont-identify-as-feminists/. Across the country, mass protests demanding changes to issues such as criminal law policies and structural racism highlight the need for reform that enables a more representative government.

End Notes

The Current Campaign Finance System Creates Barriers for Women and People of Color Who Want to Run for Office

Fundraising ability does not always dictate whether a candidate wins — but it is a major factor, and often operates as a screening criterion long before voters have the chance to choose. In the past four House general elections, the average losing candidate raised $640,000 while the average winning candidate raised $1.8 million. footnote1_fdwo2n3 1 See Methodology Section on page 14 for a detailed explanation of statistical results. The 2018 Congressional elections were the most expensive in history, with candidates spending a total of $5.7 billion. footnote2_pgsz7p0 2 OpenSecrets.org, “Most Expensive Midterm Ever: Cost of 2018 Election Surpasses $5.7 billion,” Center for Responsive Politics, February 6, 2019, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2019/02/cost-of-2018-election-5pnt7bil/.

Party leaders and major donors see candidates’ early fundraising numbers as a measure of their viability. footnote3_s2caazy 3 Raymond J. La Raja, and Brian F. Schaffner, Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 24, https://www.press.umich.edu/4882255/campaign_finance_and_political_polarization; Gary C. Jacobson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, 8th ed. (Boston: Pearson Education, 2013), 7, https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/program/Jacobson-Politics-of-Congressional-Elections-The-8th-Edition/PGM332837.html. Candidates who are less able to hit preliminary marks, either through personal funds or by finding the time and networks to raise enough money, face a disadvantage in garnering the additional support from these backers to win. footnote4_jj5nfn4 4 Adam Bonica, Professional Networks, Early Fundraising, and Electoral Success, Scholars Strategy Network, (2016): 2, https://scholars.org/sites/scholars/files/bonica_professional_networks_early_fundraising_and_electoral_success.pdf.

“To have a metric that’s solely based on fundraising, without taking into account any racial disparities, poses a real challenge,” Quentin James, executive director of Collective PAC, a group seeking to close the representation gap for African Americans, told Newsweek. footnote5_gnwi8dt 5 Marie Solis, “Black Women Candidates Running in 2018 Face More Obstacles, Political Experts Say,” Newsweek, April 9, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/black-women-candidates-running-2018-face-more-obstacles-political-experts-say-877825. One major disparity with implications for candidates of color is the well-documented racial wealth gap, created by the nation’s historical and persistent structural racism. The median net worth of a Black family is just one-tenth that of a white family, studies have found. footnote6_dergeou 6 Moritz Kuhn, Moritz Schularick, and Ulrike I. Steins, Wealth and Inequality in America, 1949-2016, Opportunity and Inclusive Growth Institute, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, 2018, 26, https://www.minneapolisfed.org/institute/working-papers-institute/iwp9.pdf; Tom Shapiro et al., The Black-White Wealth Gap, Institute on Assets and Social Policy and Thurgood Marshall Institute, November 2019, 2, https://tminstituteldf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/FINAL-RWG-Brief-v1.pdf. Further, Black individuals with wealth to give away are more inclined to donate to charities than to political campaigns. footnote7_u5i7hcw 7 Lateshia Beachum, “There Are Many Rich Minorities. So Why Are There No Koch Brothers?” The Center for Public Integrity, July 23, 2018, https://publicintegrity.org/politics/there-are-many-rich-minorities-so-why-are-there-no-black-koch-brothers/.

These fundraising prerequisites also hamper female candidates, whose social and professional networks are less likely to include major donors. footnote8_k115oex 8 Kira Sanbonmatsu, Research Inventory: American Women and Politics, Center for American Women and Politics, 2015, 42, https://www.politicalparity.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Parity-Research-Full.pdf. In a 2012 survey of 45 women candidates and officeholders at the federal, state, and local levels, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that most had never been encouraged by party leaders or other power brokers to run for higher office. footnote9_5nen0st 9 Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office – Major Findings and Recommendations for Action,” accessed October 2, 2020, https://iwpr.org/publications/building-womens-political-careers-strengthening-the-pipeline-to-higher-office/. The women said they lacked access to donor networks and faced difficulty fundraising. footnote10_gbd4zz6 10 Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Building Women’s Political Careers: Strengthening the Pipeline to Higher Office – Major Findings and Recommendations for Action.”

The underrepresentation of women and people of color in Congress exists against a backdrop of historical race and gender discrimination in areas of opportunity, such as education and employment, that enable personal wealth or access to wealthy networks. footnote11_73p5w8i 11 Kira Sanbonmatsu, “Women’s Underrepresentation in Congress,” Daedalus (Winter 2020): 42, https://www.amacad.org/publication/womens-underrepresentation-us-congress; Judith Warner, “Opening the Gates: Clearing the Way for More Women to Hold Political Office,” Center for American Progress, May 2017, 10, https://cdn.americanprogress.org/content/uploads/2017/05/17132756/Gatekeepers-reportMay.pdf A 2016 study of 5,005 congressional candidates showed that a candidate’s professional network, rather than their “talent or appeal as a politician,” was the primary determinant of their success. footnote12_g390ygr 12 Bonica, “Professional Networks, Early Fundraising, and Electoral Success,” 8. The study found, for instance, that the legal industry, by giving to campaigns and brokering connections with wealthy clients, had driven the overrepresentation of lawyers in Congress, a phenomenon unseen in comparable countries. footnote13_4gfup8t 13 Bonica, “Professional Networks, Early Fundraising, and Electoral Success,” 9.

High rates of incumbents running for reelection — and the significant fundraising advantage incumbents enjoy — pose another obstacle to increasing diversity in Congress. In the four most recent House elections, more than two-thirds of incumbents were white men and 95 percent of them retained their seats. footnote14_gw9isz5 14 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of demographic data for House general election candidates from 2012 to 2018, which was compiled by Emory University Political Scientist Dr. Bernard L. Fraga. On average, incumbents are able to raise 20 to 25 percent more in campaign contributions than challengers, largely from interest groups seeking access to officeholders. footnote15_30p3wy7 15 Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall, “The Financial Incumbency Advantage: Causes and Consequences,” The Journal of Politics 76, no. 3 (2014): 711, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271664379_The_Financial_Incumbency_Advantage_Causes_and_Consequences.

Yet even open-seat contests, the most promising path to Congress for women, see the effects of systemic bias. footnote16_xr2e7fh 16 Eric R.A.N Smith and Richard L. Fox, “The Electoral Fortunes of Women Candidates for Congress,” Political Research Quarterly 54, no. 1 (2001): 217, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/106591290105400111?journalCode=prqb; According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the large numbers of incumbents who chose not to seek reelection offered “nearly unprecedented structural opportunities” for women to win seats in Congress. See Kelly Ditmar, Unfinished Business: Women Running in 2018 and Beyond, Center for American Women and Politics, 2019, 20, https://womenrun.rutgers.edu/why-how-women-run/. Women run for open seats at disproportionately low rates. footnote17_30gwt8w 17 Barbara C. Burrell, Gender in Campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014) 67–69, https://www.press.umich.edu/213944/gender_in_campaigns_for_the_us_house_of_representatives. Institutional donors, such as PACs, “systematically” prefer to support men rather than women in open contests, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics. footnote18_kfm1w74 18 Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, and Representation 2020, Individual and PAC Giving to Women Candidates, November 2016, 1, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/fairvote/pages/4944/attachments/original/1480999514/Giving_to_Female_Candidates_2016.pdf.

Women of color face dual challenges in raising enough to demonstrate their financial viability at all levels of office. “How do you create equity in funding African American and Latina women who have less access to fundraising money in the first place, if your standard for giving money is that the person has to hit a certain threshold?” Nina Turner, former candidate for Ohio Secretary of State, said in an interview with Dēmos. footnote19_n2oltao 19 Donovan X. Ramsey, “Nina Turner on Race, Gender, and Money in Politics,” Dēmos, August 20, 2015, https://www.Demos.org/blog/nina-turner-race-gender-and-money-politics. Scholars have found that women, especially women of color, expressed more concern than men about attracting donors, an issue that altogether deterred some from running for office. footnote20_e2bdet6 20 Kira Sanbonmatsu, Susan J. Carroll, and Debbie Walsh, Poised to Run: Women’s Pathways to the State Legislatures, Center for American Women and Politics, 2009, 23, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/poisedtorun_0.pdf; Jennifer J. Lawless and Richard L. Fox, Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in Politics, American University Women & Politics Institute, January 2012, http://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/2012-Men-Rule-Report-final-web.pdf; Barbara C. Burrell, “Women's and Men's Campaigns for The U.S. House of Representatives, 1972-1982 A Finance Gap?,” American Politics Research 13, no. 3 (1985), http://apr.sagepub.com/content/13/3/251.full.pdf+html

In 2018, Tanzie Youngblood, a Black woman, garnered significant grassroots support when she ran to represent New Jersey’s 2nd congressional district. But party leadership supported her white, male primary opponent, who outraised her thanks to special-interest money (and, after winning election, switched parties). Youngblood, a retired teacher who took out personal loans to fund her campaign, told Newsweek that party leaders “don’t see the value in a candidate like me.” footnote21_h9qzh80 21 Solis, “Why Are Democrats Backing a Former NRA Supporter Over a First-time Black Women Candidate?”; Anita Kumar, “Van Drew Pledges ‘Undying Support’ for Trump as He Switches Parties,” Politico, December 19, 2019, https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/19/trump-meet-party-switching-van-drew-087976.

Also in 2018, Gina Ortiz Jones set out to challenge incumbent Will Hurd in Texas’ 23rd congressional district. An Iraq War veteran who had served in Air Force intelligence and held a master’s degree in economics, she heard from experienced politicians that she would not be taken seriously unless she raised $300,000 in the first three months of her campaign. “Raising $300,000 in three months is daunting for somebody that, frankly, if you come from this area, you probably don’t have the personal or professional networks that lend itself to that,” Jones told the San Antonio Express. footnote22_cp1edax 22 Gilbert Garcia, “Fundraising Made Jones Supporter of Finance Reform,” San Antonio Express, October 7, 2018, http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/SanAntonioExpressNews/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=SAENpercent2F2018percent2F10percent2F07&entity=Ar00201&sk=CECA46C3&mode=text#. The experience led Jones to become a proponent of federal campaign finance reform.

End Notes

Women and People of Color Running for Congress Rely More on Small Donors

Women and people of color have relied more on small donors than their male and/or white counterparts, according to an analysis of the past four general elections for the U.S. House. footnote1_kkkhayl 1 See the Methodology section on page 14 or a detailed explanation of statistical results. The female and nonwhite makeup of the total population was determined using U.S. Census American Community Survey 5-year data from 2014 to 2018. This analysis produced the following findings:

  • When a female candidate ran against a male candidate, the share of funds that the average female candidate raised from small donors was 70 percent greater than the share raised by the average male candidate. footnote2_paut0qx 2 See Methodology section on page 14 for a detailed explanation of statistical results. Fundraising data additionally showed that the average female candidate raised a 12 percent higher proportion of large donations than did the average male candidate. Although this result is statistically significant, female candidates’ reliance on small donations is stronger, since the average female candidate raised a 70 percent higher proportion of small donations than did the average male candidate. Next, when Democratic candidates were excluded from analysis — who overall raised a higher proportion in small donations than their Republican counterparts (i.e., Republican women, including general election winners) — female candidates were still found to have raised a higher proportion in small donations than Republican men.
  • When a candidate of color ran against a white candidate, the share of funds that the average candidate of color raised from small donors was 67 percent greater than the share raised by the average white candidate. footnote3_in69twg 3 See Methodology section on page 14 for a detailed explanation of statistical results.

Yet the relative power of small donors, on whom nontraditional candidates depend more, has plummeted in recent years. From 2008 to 2018, the share of money supporting federal candidates that came from donors of more than $100,000 — an amount well over the median U.S. household’s annual income — increased nearly fivefold. footnote4_i2pci5w 4 Vandewalker, “The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors.” Over the same period, the share of money from small donors remained constant, at about a fifth of total federal fundraising. footnote5_t0qbj22 5 Vandewalker, “The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors.”

Even when millions of small donors mobilize to support candidates, a small number of large donors can drown them out. In the 2018 cycle, fewer than 3,500 large donors (each giving more than $100,000) contributed more money to elect candidates than an estimated 7 million small donors (each giving $200 or less) combined. footnote6_p0ddpwx 6 Vandewalker, “The 2018 Small Donor Boom Was Drowned Out by Big Donors.”

Donors themselves lack diversity as a group. The vast majority of federal election donors are white. footnote7_cw6eys3 7 McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes, Whose Voice, Whose Choice?, 19. And even though female donors have increased their giving in recent years, men continue to make up the majority of donors in federal elections. footnote8_u5dr863 8 Center for Responsive Politics, “Donor Demographics,” date accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.opensecrets.org/elections-overview/donor-demographics?cycle=2018&display=G; Kate Zernike, “Female Candidates Break Barriers, Except When It Comes to Money,” New York Times, October 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/30/us/politics/women-campaign-fundraising.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage. A study of donor demographics in federal elections from 1980 to 2012 showed that people of color accounted for only 10 percent of individual contributions and that women of color accounted for only 2 percent. footnote9_mpjw0jy 9 Jacob M. Grumbach and Alexander Sahn, “Race and Representation in Campaign Finance,” American Political Science Review 114, no. 1 (2019): 8, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336789937_Race_and_Representation_in_Campaign_Finance.

The ranks of the wealthiest donors, who dominate elections, show stark racial and gender disparities. Large donors from the nation’s top contributing majority-white neighborhoods gave more than 10 times more than large donors from the top contributing majority-minority neighborhoods to federal candidates from 2010 to 2018, one analysis found. footnote10_zplyt0x 10 Adam Zibel, Oligarch Overload: How Ultra-Rich Donors Have Flooded American Politics With Cash Since Citizens United, Public Citizen, January 15, 2020, 1, https://www.citizen.org/article/oligarch-overload/?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=33ce6cd2-22f1-49a4-bc83-d7f0ae5a1d41. Research shows that women are significantly less represented among donors of more than $10,000 than among donors overall. footnote11_ridozdt 11 Heerwig and Gordon, “Buying a Voice,” 815. 

The wealthy donor-driven campaign finance system favors white and male candidates, who have disproportionately greater access to these networks. footnote12_mei02lw 12 McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes, Whose Voice, Whose Choice?, 1. Candidates who would need to rely predominantly on small donors generally face a disadvantage, with exceptions seeming to need to achieve the superstar status of a Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Private fundraising networks devoted to increasing congressional diversity have made a difference, but progress remains a challenge. footnote13_kuh3xk1 13 Jim Zarroli, “2020 Is The Year Of The Woman Donor: Campaign Contributions Surge,” NPR, September 3, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/03/908254716/2020-is-the-year-of-the-woman-donor-campaign-contributions-surge. One such group, Emily’s List, has helped women in the Democratic Party launch campaigns for all levels of office. footnote14_r0xu2sc 14 Emily’s List, “Emily’s List Recognizes Black History Month,” February 1, 2020, https://www.emilyslist.org/news/entry/emilys-list-recognizes-black-history-month. Still, when it comes to helping women of color overcome fundraising disadvantages, the group’s president has said of private networks and party leadership, “Do we have to do more? Absolutely.” footnote15_e7wplk9 15 Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Tough Choices, and Criticism, for Emily’s List as Democratic Women Flood Primaries,” New York Times, May 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/04/us/politics/emilys-list-midterm-elections.html.

Linda Coleman, a Black woman who ran in North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district in 2018, told the News & Observer, “The biggest challenge is raising money. We usually represent less affluent communities . . . The money drives the message, so we obviously have a very difficult time navigating that terrain. There’s a racial gap and a gender gap for Black women.” footnote16_lwgjhlu 16 Brian Murphy and Dawn Baumgartner Vaughn, “As Voters, Black Women Are Important to Democrats. As Candidates, Where’s the Support?” The News & Observer, February 24, 2020, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/election/article240156358.html. Coleman lost the general election, coming up hundreds of thousands of dollars short of the $2.8 million raised by her white male opponent. footnote17_eub1sio 17 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of Federal Elections Commission contributions data for House candidates who ran in the 2018 general election.

End Notes

Congressional Small Donor Public Financing Could Reduce Race and Gender Inequities Among Candidates

In March 2019, the House of Representatives passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1), a sweeping democracy reform bill that continues to await Senate approval as of October 2020. One of the bill’s provisions is a voluntary small donor public financing program that promises to reduce fundraising barriers for congressional candidates who have less access to wealthy donors. The program would provide $6 in matching public funds for each $1 in small donations to candidates who choose to participate, can meet certain qualifying requirements, and abide by stricter rules such as smaller contribution limits.

Under the program, a $200 donation would get a $1,200 match, making it worth $1,400 to a campaign. A $1,000 contribution limit — significantly lower than the $5,600 limit in the 2020 election — would further encourage candidates to raise most of their funds from small donors. To avoid wasting public funds, the program would allow only candidates able to demonstrate substantial public support to participate and would cap the total amount of public funds any candidate can receive per cycle.

The reform would empower candidates — regardless of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status — to leverage broad public support and reduce their reliance on large donors, while still raising substantial sums. This small donor matching system particularly aids women and people of color who tend to rely more on small donors and face systemic disadvantages in accessing large donors (see Figure 3). But it also enables all candidates to strengthen their ties with small donors.

The public financing reform would allow underrepresented candidates to raise more competitive sums of money. Under the program, the average female candidate over the past four cycles could have raised $607,605 more while the average male candidate could have raised $444,449 more. footnote1_c9kbtgu 1 See Methodology section on page 14 or a detailed explanation of statistical results.  Meanwhile, the average candidate of color could have raised $427,314 more while the average white candidate could have raised $308,978 more. footnote2_j6dcywj 2 See Methodology section on page 14 or a detailed explanation of statistical results. That all types of candidates could raise more with this reform does not negate the benefit to underrepresented candidates of earning more funds to get out their message to voters.

Congressional small donor public financing would especially empower women of color, the most disadvantaged group when it comes to traditional fundraising. footnote3_la6iwbn 3 Center for Responsive Politics, Common Cause, and Representation 2020, Individual and PAC Giving to Women Candidates, 11; Bryner and Haley, Race, Gender, and Money in Politics, 18. From 2012 to 2018, they consistently raised less on average than all other congressional candidates. footnote4_duu1ppj 4 This statistic was calculated through a Brennan Center analysis of Federal Elections Commission contributions data for House candidates who ran in the 2012-2018 general elections. A public financing program could help narrow that fundraising gap for women of color candidates, whose fundraising efforts tend to depend more on small donations.

Applying H.R. 1’s public financing program to 2018 fundraising — the most recent federal election for which complete data are available — shows its potential to reduce the average deficit woman of color candidates faced by 34 percent. Though their average fundraising would still lag behind all other categories of candidates, the gap would narrow. Because of their particular reliance on small donors, women of color could have raised 48 percent more on average than under the status quo, while all other candidates could have raised 28 percent more on average. These findings suggest the reform could have a significant corrective effect on race and gender biases entrenched in the traditional campaign finance system.

States and localities that already offer a public financing option show the reform helps reduce barriers for candidates who lack deep-pocketed networks. In Connecticut, public financing has helped a more diverse set of candidates win state office. footnote5_m833yos 5 J. Mijin Cha and Miles Rapaport, Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut, Dēmos, April 29, 2013, 13, https://www.Demos.org/research/fresh-start-impact-public-campaign-financing-connecticut. Four years after the state’s program began in 2008, Latino representation in the state legislature reached its highest level and women’s representation also grew. Public financing helped empower candidates of color in Arizona, where the number of Native American and Latino candidates nearly tripled after the program was implemented. footnote6_2jpjye6 6 Steven M. Levin, Keeping it Clean: Public Financing in American Elections, Center for Governmental Studies, January 2006, 7, https://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/4523

New York City’s longstanding small donor public financing program has seen a series of “firsts” for traditionally underrepresented candidates. footnote7_4w5os7h 7 David Moore, “NYC Progressives Coalesce Around Campaign Finance Initiative”, Sludge, November 5, 2018, https://readsludge.com/2018/11/05/nyc-progressives-coalesce-around-campaign-finance-ballot-initiative/; Hazel Millard, “Another Election Winner — Public Financing”, Brennan Center for Justice, November 12, 2018, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/another-election-winner-public-financing. In its early years, David Dinkins used the program to become New York City’s first Black mayor. footnote8_8qmprjw 8 Frederick A.O. Schwartz, Angela Migally, and Susan Liss, Small Donor Matching Funds: The NYC Election Experience, Brennan Center for Justice, September 17, 2010, 21, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_Small-Donor-Matching-Funds-NYC-Experience.pdf. In 2010, now-New York Attorney General Letitia James, the first Black woman elected to citywide office, credited public financing for her victory. “The public financing system gave me the opportunity to compete and succeed, allowing me to represent individuals whose voices are historically ignored,” she told the Brennan Center. footnote9_y4eoh6z 9 DeNora Getachew and Ava Mehta, Breaking Down Barriers: The Faces of Small Donor Public Financing, Brennan Center for Justice, June 29, 2016, 7, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Faces_of_Public_Financing.pdf. Today, half of the members of the New York City Council identify as Black, Asian, or Latino and three-quarters of these members ran publicly-funded campaigns. footnote10_2tta5n0 10 New York City Council, “Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus,” date accessed October 2, 2020, https://council.nyc.gov/caucuses/bla-caucus/; New York City Campaign Finance Board, “Campaign Finance Summary: 2017 Citywide Elections,” date accessed October 2, 2020, https://www.nyccfb.info/VSApps/WebForm_Finance_Summary.aspx?as_election_cycle=2017.

Washington, D.C.’s new small donor public financing program has already been dubbed a “game-changer” for enabling a greater diversity of candidates to run. footnote11_wdegdf9 11 Martin Austermuhle, “Candidates Taking On D.C. Incumbents Say New Public Financing Program Is A Game-Changer,” WAMU, August 9, 2019, https://wamu.org/story/19/08/09/candidates-taking-on-d-c-incumbents-say-new-public-financing-program-is-a-game-changer/ Janeese Lewis George, a Black woman who is running for the first time using the program, told WAMU, “Shirley Chisholm said, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.’ And I think Fair Elections [the public financing program] gives more people the opportunity to bring a folding chair to the table.” footnote12_b7ztaf3 12 Austermuhle, “Candidates Taking On D.C. Incumbents Say New Public Financing Program Is A Game-Changer.” 

The reform empowers underrepresented candidates to shape how voters see them, according to Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a political consultant who led fundraising for Letitia James’s citywide public advocate campaign using New York City’s public financing program. Peeler-Allen, the co-founder of Higher Heights, a group dedicated to increasing the political power of Black women, said, “I tell candidates all the time, ‘I don't need you to be the top raiser in the race, I need you to meet your budget needs and be able to control your messaging to your voters.’ Public financing helps them do that.” footnote13_1tn16c4 13 The Brennan Center conducted an interview with Kimberly Peeler-Allen on September 14, 2020.

The citywide matching funds program in Berkeley, California also enabled a fundamentally different fundraising experience for candidates. Rashi Kesarwani, a woman of color and first-time candidate, said that asking community members for $50 as opposed to $250 made fundraising less difficult. footnote14_74i65g5 14 Frances Dinkelspiel, “Public Financing Is Being Used for 1st Time in Berkeley Election; How’s It Going So Far?” Berkeleyside, August 8, 2018, https://www.berkeleyside.com/2018/08/08/campaign-notebook-how-public-financing-of-city-council-elections-is-working?doing_wp_cron=1594820836.4101281166076660156250. City Councilwoman Lori Droste, who ran for a second term in 2018 using the program, said, “If you have significant Berkeley support, it makes it much easier to raise money. It makes it easier for people with a lot of grassroots support to enter races.” footnote15_2zm7mcf 15 Dinkelspiel, “Public Financing Is Being Used for 1st Time in Berkeley Election; How’s It Going So Far?”

End Notes

Small Donor Public Financing Will Benefit Constituents and Those Elected to Serve Them

Small donor public financing for congressional elections would benefit voters and candidates, including incumbents, alike. It would make a broader swath of Americans, even those who lack great wealth, influential in politics as donors. And it would enable elected officials to spend more time and energy on their constituents rather than on courting large donors.

Broadening the ranks of donors could encourage elected officials to make more broadly representative policy choices. Donors enjoy more access to elected representatives than constituents who do not give campaign money, research shows. footnote1_4etf2jj 1 Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman, “Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Officials: A Randomized Field Experiment,” American Journal of Political Science 60, no.3 (2016): 553, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ajps.12180. See also Eleanor Neff Powell and Justin Grimmer, “Money in Exile: Campaign Contributions and Committee Access,” The Journal of Politics 78, no. 4 (2016), https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/686615; James Herndon, “Access, Record and Competition as Influences on Interest Group Contributions to Congressional Campaigns,” Journal of Politics 44, no. 4 (1982), https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.2307/2130670; J. David Gopoian, Hobart Smith, and William Smith, “What Makes PACs Tick? An Analysis of the Allocation Patterns of Economic Interest Groups,” American Journal of Political Science 28, no. 2 (1984): 259–281, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2110873?origin=crossref&seq=1. Wealthy white donors, who dominate elections under the status quo system, tend to prefer different policies than most voters in critical areas such as education, healthcare, taxes, and jobs. footnote2_mnyiwf2 2 Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 1 (2013): 56, https://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/cab/CAB2012%20-%20Page1.pdf; Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," Perspectives on Politics 12, no. 3 (2014): 572–575, https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mgilens/files/gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf; McElwee, Schaffner, and Rhodes, Whose Voice, Whose Choice?, 19; Peter K. Enns et al., The Power of Economic Interests and the Congressional Economic Policy Agenda, Scholars Strategy Network, 2016, 15, https://scholars.org/sites/scholars/files/witko_the_power_of_economic_interests_and_the_congressional_economic_policy_agenda.pdf. Small donors tend to better represent the average constituent in terms of financial status than large donors. footnote3_i48bsx4 3 Michael J. Malbin, “Small Donors: Incentives, Economies of Scale, and Effects,” The Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics 11, no. 3 (2013): 386, 394, https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/for/11/3/article-p385.xml. By incentivizing candidates to seek contributions from a more representative pool of supporters, small donor public financing would help the campaign finance part of the political process better fit the ideals of a representative democracy.

In jurisdictions that offer small donor public financing, the programs have incentivized a much larger and more diverse share of the electorate to participate in the political process as donors. New York City’s program “brought more low-dollar donors into the system,” leading to a “substantial increase not only in the proportional role of small donors but in their absolute numbers per candidate,” a study by the Campaign Finance Institute concluded. footnote4_7d8600c 4 Malbin, Brusoe, and Glavin, “Small Donors, Big Democracy,” 14. And small donors to municipal candidates who participated in the city’s public financing program were more likely to be racially and financially representative of all city residents than donors to state candidates, who did not have access to public financing. footnote5_7pd398i 5 Genn et al., Donor‍‍‍‍ Diver‍‍‍‍sity Thr‍‍‍‍ough Public Matching Funds, 13.

Connecticut’s public financing program has transformed campaign fundraising for state office. In 2018, state legislative candidates raised nearly all their funds from individual donors rather than from organizations, and a substantial portion from small donors. footnote6_pq45mua 6 Beth A. Rotman and Lisa Nightingale, Amplifying Small-Dollar Donors in the Citizens United Era: Connecticut’s Citizens Election Program Shifted the Balance of Power to the People, Common Cause, September 10, 2020, 2, https://www.commoncause.org/connecticut/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2020/09/CT_SmallDonorDollar_Report_WEB.pdf. Before public financing, candidates raised half of their funds from special interest groups such as lobbyists and PACs. footnote7_y06om4k 7 Rotman and Nightingale, Amplifying Small-Dollar Donors in the Citizens United Era, 2.

Residents of Berkeley, California saw donor participation increase in every zip code during the city’s first election cycle with a small donor public financing system. footnote8_4ktx7wk 8 Smith, Sridharan, and Curlin, “2018 Fair Elections in Berkeley.” In 2013, when Los Angeles first offered a public matching funds program, candidates raised their funds from a broader set of neighborhoods compared to previous elections. footnote9_rxb4yrg 9 Malbin and Parrot, “Small Donor Empowerment Depends on the Details,” 243.

What is good for constituents also is good for candidates. Officeholders, regardless of party, have expressed frustration about having to spend time courting large donors rather than interacting with constituents under traditional fundraising. footnote10_zhcbu7g 10 “Are members of Congress becoming telemarketers?,” by Norah O’Donnell, 60 Minutes, CBS, April 24, 2016, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/60-minutes-are-members-of-congress-becoming-telemarketers/; Mark Alexander, “Let Them Do Their Jobs: A Compelling Government Interest in Protecting the Time of Candidates and Elected Officials,” Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 37, no. 4 (2006): 676, https://lawecommons.luc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1179&context=luclj; Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, “Time Suck: How the Fundraising Treadmill Diminishes Effective Governance,” Seton Hall Legislative Journal 42, no. 2 (2018): 273, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0e14/2cc5f8d29365f0b8534cbecab221d18f6cfd.pdf; Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, “Netflix for Democracy,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 17, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/netflix-democracy. Small donor public financing brings fundraising and representation closer together. As now-New York Attorney General James said of her experience using New York City’s public financing program:

“I’m free from the strangehold of . . . big donors demanding meetings and policy changes. Every New Yorker . . . know[s] they can come to my door, and their voices will be heard . . . Every elected official in this country needs the freedom to represent the interest of Americans. And it is through public financing that we will get one step closer to ensuring that our elected representatives are representatives of our electorate.” footnote11_7kpxu74 11 Brennan Center for Justice, The Case for Small Donor Public Financing in New York State, February, 26, 2019, 9, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/policy-solutions/case-small-donor-public-financing-new-york.

Further, a recent Brennan Center analysis found that almost all candidates in recent congressional elections could have raised as much money — or more — using public financing as they did under the status quo system. footnote12_ix8qi02 12 Ian Vandewalker and Kevin Morris, “The Reform Law Needed to Counter Citizens United: H.R.1,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 21, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/reform-law-needed-counter-citizens-united-hr-1. The program’s small donation multiplier effect and low contribution limits would make a $200 donor more valuable to a candidate than a $1,000 donor. Voters who could part with only $20 would see a public match of $120 increase their gift’s value to $140 — an amount they could compound by rallying neighbors. footnote13_kpblj13 13 Gareth Fowler and Daniel I. Weiner, Understanding H.R.1’s Public Financing Provisions, Brennan Center for Justice, September 20, 2019, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/understanding-hr1s-public-financing-provisions-0.

Research shows that donating to campaigns can be a “gateway” for constituents to become more politically active. footnote14_w5ms5d4 14 Spencer Overton, “The Participation Interest,” The Georgetown Law Journal 100 (2012): 1279, https://scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1167&context=faculty_publications. Small donors are more likely than large donors to donate their time to campaigns, phone banking, or helping to distribute literature. footnote15_b72luuo 15 Peeler-Allen, the political consultant, said, “I have done countless small-donor fundraisers that doubled as volunteer recruitment opportunities. This is invaluable support that comes when people feel that their financial contribution matters just as much as their time.” footnote16_rcire7u 16 The Brennan Center conducted an interview with Kimberly Peeler-Allen on September 14, 2020.

Small donor public financing has been shown to strengthen the relationship between candidates and their constituents. New York City candidates who opted to use the city’s public financing program in 2017 solicited more support from residents of the districts they hoped to serve, and relied more on small donors, than candidates who did not participate in public financing. footnote17_bnx6eh2 17 Nirali Vyas, Chisun Lee, and Joanna Zdanys, The Constituent–Engagement Effect of Small Donor Public Financing, Brennan Center for Justice,” September 9, 2019, 2, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-09/Report_Constituent-Engagement%20Effect_.pdf  the new public financing system in Montgomery County, Maryland, were able to run their campaigns almost entirely on donations of $150 or less from county residents. By contrast, privately-funded candidates raised only 3 percent of their total funds from residents contributing $150 or less. footnote18_2ntqxp4 18 Emily Scarr and Joe Ready, Fair Elections in Montgomery County, Maryland PIRG Foundation, September 2019, 1, https://marylandpirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/Fair%20Elections%20in%20Montgomery%20County-%20Maryland%20PIRG%202019_0.pdf.

In New York state, which enacted an ambitious small donor public financing program in 2020, State Senator Alessandra Biaggi wrote that the reform is critical to empowering elected officials to respond to the needs of the majority of their constituents: “The truth is, if we don’t pay for our elected officials’ campaigns directly, we will most certainly pay indirectly, through higher rents, higher health costs, and higher prices on everything else big donors have to sell. So which would you choose?” footnote19_i3jpsde 19 Alessandra Biaggi, “Deep-pocketed Donors Hold Sway Over New York Politics, and All of Us Suffer: Sen. Biaggi,” The Journal News/lohud.com, February 4, 2019, https://www.lohud.com/story/opinion/contributors/2019/02/04/alessandra-biaggi-new-york-campaign-finance-reform/2747978002/.

End Notes

Conclusion

From the Covid-19 pandemic to law enforcement tragedies, events in 2020 have underscored the hardships disproportionately borne by Black and Latino Americans, and low-income families, often helmed by women. footnote1_exj2gea 1 Sherita Hill Golden, “Coronavirus in African Americans and other People of Color,” Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, April 20, 2020, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid19-racial-disparities; “The Fire This Time – Police Violence, Race and Protest in America,” The Economist, June 4, 2020, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/06/04/police-violence-race-and-protest-in-america; Sarah Jane Glynn, Breadwinning Mothers Continue to be the U.S. Norm, Center for American Progress, May 10, 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2019/05/10/469739/breadwinning-mothers-continue-u-s-norm/. But voters of all backgrounds express concern about the outsized influence of wealth in politics and want a democracy that is responsive to everyone’s needs. footnote2_ol3mi10 2 Daniel Hensel, “New Poll Shows Money in Politics Is A Top Voting Concern,” Issue One, June 29, 2016, https://www.issueone.org/new-poll-shows-money-in-politics-is-a-top-voting-concern/; Bradley Jones, “Most Americans Want to Limit Campaign Spending, Say Big Donors Have Greater Political Influence,” Pew Research Center, May 8, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/08/most-americans-want-to-limit-campaign-spending-say-big-donors-have-greater-political-influence/.

Small donor public financing can help meet voters’ desires for a more representative democracy. Though it is by no means a complete fix for the historic inequities that drive the current underrepresentation of women and people of color in Congress, it is an effective step forward. The $6-to-$1 small donor match will boost candidates who rely more on small donors, even as it enables all candidates to raise competitive sums from a more representative donor base.

As important, the reform will spur a greater diversity of Americans to participate in the political process as donors, while freeing elected officials to spend more time with their constituents and less time seeking large donations. This closer alignment of fundraising with governance makes small donor public financing a crucial part, along with improvements to voting and redistricting, of federal reform to strengthen our representative democracy.

End Notes

Methodology

Data Selection

This study analyzes the fundraising records and demographics of major-party general election candidates from 2012 through 2018. The Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics provided House fundraising data. Bernard L. Fraga, an associate professor of political science at Emory University who specializes in U.S. electoral politics, racial and ethnic politics, and political behavior, provided House candidates’ race and gender data. He and other experts coded this dataset through analysis of candidate websites, press releases, and voter file-based modeling. footnote1_7qo2ax8 1 For a detailed explanation of the coding methodology Dr. Fraga used in creating the candidate demographic dataset, See Bernard L. Fraga, “Separating Race and Party in Congressional Elections (Working Paper),” June 9, 2020, 1 (Appendix), https://www.dropbox.com/s/854svzc8pju75fo/RacePartyCandidates_060920.pdf?dl=0. Fraga’s book, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America, relies on this dataset. footnote2_r10anad 2 Bernard L. Fraga, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity, and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/turnout-gap/1B79B19C880A93C462FD1DF22F65DD15.

We exclude Senate candidates from analysis because the small sample size of women and people of color in this group would not allow for reliable conclusions, as just a few outlier candidates would skew mean findings. Out of the 283 major-party general election candidates for Senate who ran from 2012 through 2018, only 72 were women and 26 were people of color. By contrast, out of the total 3,328 candidates who ran for the House during the same period, 733 were women and 687 were people of color (See Figure 1). A combined analysis of House and Senate candidates would also lead to unreliable results, since Senate candidates must appeal to a much wider set of constituents and donors than House candidates.

This analysis also focuses solely on general elections due to a lack of reliable demographic data for candidates who ran in primary elections. We exclude from analysis third-party candidates because they are not likely to garner the wide public support required to qualify for matching funds under H.R. 1. footnote3_2z4mrcu 3 Paul S. Herrnson, “Minor-Party Candidates in Congressional Elections,” in The Marketplace of Democracy: Electoral Competition and American Politics, ed. Michael P. McDonald and John Samples (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2006), 107, https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-marketplace-of-democracy/.

Analysis and Modeling of H.R. 1’s Public Financing Provisions

The primary question of this study is whether the public financing provisions in H.R. 1, which are designed to reward candidates for engaging with small donors, could advance racial and gender equity in campaign fundraising. Measuring candidates’ small donor support is therefore crucial to this study but is not straightforward because the Federal Election Commission does not disclose individualized donor data for contributions below $200. The lack of individualized data makes it impossible to determine the precise number of small donors to federal campaigns. Therefore, to measure candidates’ small donor support, we instead used candidates’ share of total fundraising from small donations, which is fully reported by the Federal Election Commission.

The comparison of average small-donor support by candidate demographics in Figures 2 and 3 controlled for district-level dynamics by analyzing by contest where a female candidate opposed a male candidate (562 contests) and where a candidate of color opposed a white candidate (403 contests). Using two-tailed t-tests, a common social science method for detecting statistical significance, we found robust differences in average small donor reliance between male and female candidates and between white candidates and candidates of color.

We also conducted multivariate regression analysis to test other confounding variables against our main predictor variables. Even when we controlled for election year, competitiveness (according to ratings of “toss up” or “lean” by the Cook Political Report), and party, we found that race and gender were statistically significant predictors of small donor reliance among House general election candidates.

We made several common-sense assumptions in modeling the impact of H.R. 1’s public financing provisions on candidates’ fundraising in the House districts that allowed comparison of female candidates, candidates of color, and women of color candidates to their white and/or male counterparts (see Figures 3 and 4). footnote4_jud78s0 4 This model is adapted from an earlier Brennan Center analysis. See Ian Vandewalker and Kevin Morris, “The Reform Law Needed to Counter Citizens United: H.R.1,” Brennan Center for Justice, January 21, 2020, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/reform-law-needed-counter-citizens-united-hr-1. First, the model assumed participation by all candidates who would raise as much or more money under public financing. The model made no changes to nonparticipant candidates’ contributions, who disproportionately relied on large donors.

Second, under the program, the largest matched contribution ($200) would be worth more to candidates than the largest private contribution ($1,000). Accordingly, the model converts all contributions of $200 or more into matched $200 contributions. Contributions of less than $200 remain the same and are matched. Third, for those candidates who earn the maximum amount of public funds, the model converted all contributions greater than $1,000 after the candidate hit the maximum to $1,000, assuming the candidate would switch to soliciting the maximum private contribution.

End Notes

About the Authors

Nirali Vyas was a research and program associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and is a J.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University Law School. At the Brennan Center, she conducted quantitative and qualitative research about public campaign financing and other electoral reforms in New York state and at the federal level. Previously she worked at the Social Science Research Council and completed internships at the Ford Foundation and the Trenton Prevention Policy Board. She graduated from The College of New Jersey in 2016 with a B.A. in economics and political science. There she led a team of researchers and faculty in a study she designed to determine the socioeconomic effects of abandoned property following the subprime mortgage meltdown in Trenton, New Jersey. 

Chisun Lee is deputy director of the Brennan Center's Election Reform Program, where she works to advance money-in-politics reform and improve election administration. She leads strategy and research for policy initiatives, legislative campaigns, publications, litigation, and public advocacy. She has authored or co-authored nationally recognized reports, and writes and comments for outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post. She has provided policy advice to federal, state, and local legislators across the country and taught as an adjunct professor at NYU School of Law.

Before her current work at the Brennan Center, Lee represented indigent criminal defendants in federal court. Previously she served as a law clerk to the Honorable Gerard E. Lynch in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Lee also worked in journalism and government. She covered legal issues and won numerous honors as a staff reporter for ProPublica and previously the Village Voice. Prior to becoming a journalist, Lee was press secretary to a citywide elected official in New York City. She received her J.D. from Harvard Law School and graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a degree in history.

Gregory Clark is a research and program associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where his work focuses on money-in-politics reform and expanding participation in the political process. Previously he completed internships with the Voting Section of the United States Department of Justice, Emerson Collective, and Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, a non-profit housing law firm. He graduated in 2020 from Stanford University with a B.A. in political science.

Acknowledgments

The Brennan Center gratefully acknowledges Change Happens Foundation, Ford Foundation, Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Kohlberg Philanthropies, The Leo Model Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Overbrook Foundation, Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the WhyNot Initiative for their generous support of our work.

The authors wish to thank a number of individuals outside of the Brennan Center for their generous contributions of scholarly resources and expertise. Bernard L. Fraga, associate professor of political science at Emory University, provided demographic data about congressional candidates, without which this analysis would not have been possible. Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights and visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, contributed extensive comments. Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics, also provided valuable feedback.

The authors also are grateful to current and former colleagues at the Brennan Center for their assistance. Lawrence Norden and Michael Waldman provided overall editorial insight. Fellow Neil Chaturvedi, associate professor of political science at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, offered extensive methodological guidance. Kevin Morris and Peter Miller also contributed methodology advice. Sonali Seth provided substantial research assistance during a legal internship. Hazel Millard also contributed research assistance. Ian Vandewalker provided editorial and methodological feedback. Daniel Weiner and Joanna Zdanys offered comments. And the communications expertise of Lisa Benenson, Matthew Harwood, Jeanne Park, Alden Wallace, Alexandra Ringe, Tim Lau, Zachary Laub, Justin Charles, Rebecca Autrey, Josh Bell, and Lisa Vosper, made design and publication of this analysis possible.