Last week, Demos and U.S. PIRG released a report, Big Money Dominates in Congressional Primaries, which shows how a small number of large donors play an outsized role in the candidate-selection process. For example, the report finds that “fewer than 5,500 large donors matched the primary contributions coming from at least 440,000 donors nationwide.” To put this another way, on average, each large donor contributed about as much as at least 800 small donors.
At the extreme end, in Texas, 80% of primary contributions came from donors giving $1,000 or more. And the largest donor contributed enough to his campaign to match all other contributions from individuals who gave $200 or less to any candidate in Texas.
When big money dominates congressional primaries, it determines who runs for—and ultimately wins—the nomination. And when only candidates who are wealthy or dependent on big donors are viable, it results in skewed policy outcomes and voter disaffection.
But reasonable campaign finance regulations—such as contribution limits—can address these problems. Professor Patrick Flavin examined data from about a thirty-year period, finding that “states with stricter campaign finance laws devote a larger proportion of their annual budget to public welfare spending in general and to cash assistance programs in particular.” He explained, “[S]tricter campaign finance laws alter incentives for candidates to respond to wealthy constituents by lessening the proportion of contributions that originate from business interests.”
And, again, without these laws, the wealthy elite can capture the legislative agenda, even when their views about social welfare programs differ sharply from those of the general public.
The Demos/PIRG report identifies several additional solutions that address this democratic harm. It promotes public financing programs that raise the voice of small donors. And it discusses the movement to overturn the Citizens United decision and the rest of the jurisprudence that has permitted the big-money domination of politics.
In sum, the Demos/PIRG report first describes the problem of big donors playing an outsized role in the candidate-selection process and then points the way towards solutions that might mitigate this undue influence.