New Data Shows Donor Class Does Not Accurately Represent Diversity and Policy Views of American Voters

Release Date: 
December 8, 2016

New York, NY – Today, Demos, a New York-based think tank, released a new report examining the donor class that is dominating U.S. campaign funding and how their influence is distorting American democracy. The report, which is titled “Whose Voice, Whose Choice? The Political Donor Class in our Big-Money Elections,” analyzes, for the first time, the demographics of who is spending the most money in American elections and their policy preferences. The report was authored by Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at Demos, along with Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes, political scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The review of federal elections in 2012, 2014 and 2016 found:

Big money donors are unrepresentative of the American population, as they are largely white, male and wealthy.

  • Although the voting age electorate was more diverse in 2016 than ever before, 91 percent of presidential donors in 2016 were white. White men make up only 35 percent of the adult population, but comprise 48 percent of donors.
  • People of color were responsible for only 3 percent of the contributions to the President-Elect. African-Americans comprised just 4 percent of congressional donors in 2012 and 3 percent in 2014.
  • And, 2016 Presidential candidates relied on the very wealthy: millionaires make up only 3 percent of the adult population, but 42 percent of the money Clinton raised and 27 percent of the money Trump raised came from millionaires. A third of money raised by both candidates came from Americans with a net worth between $300,000 and $1,000,000.

Big donors’ political opinions are also misaligned with the opinions of non-donors, with large donors typically more opposed to core progressive policies.

  • Only 44 percent of elite donors ($5,000+) supported the Affordable Care Act, compared with 53 percent of non-donors.
  • While 74 percent of non-donors supported the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, less than half of large donors ($1,000+) supported the legislation.
  • Male donors are less supportive of reproductive justice, and white donors are less supportive of immigration reform and action on climate change.

Sean McElwee, policy analyst from Demos and author of the report, explains, "Our democracy must give an equal voice to all Americans, regardless of their race, gender or economic status. When we look back, 2016 will likely be viewed as one of America’s most extraordinary elections in our history as a nation, but one constant stayed true: presidential donors were white, male, and wealthy. These donors continue to have greater influence over American elections, reinforcing inequality in our society and further demonstrating how unbalanced our current campaign finance system is. The donor class is not only a barrier to implementing policies to ameliorate economic inequality, but also hinders policies to address race and gender inequities.  Only with comprehensive reform of campaign finance laws can we ensure that our government fulfills its purpose to serve the needs of the many, and not the preferences of those who can afford to make large political contributions.”

To address this unbalance, the authors recommend a reform plan that limits the influence of big money in politics, including public funding of elections and limitations on campaign spending and contributions. In addition, the report explains that raising voter turnout and reducing economic inequality will expand the electorate, combat the influence of big money, and increase the economic power of more Americans.

Demos has a history of studying trends in campaign finance and advocating for campaign finance reform that ensures all Americans have an equal say in our democracy. Today’s report is the fourth in a series that looks at the donor class; previous reports include a look at the donor class in recent local elections in ChicagoWashington, D.C. and Miami-Dade. The report can be found online here