Aside from the personal costs of running for office, and the structural problems stemming from the way we elect representatives, money is a major issue when it comes to the representation of people of color. While personal resources play a role in the decision to pursue elective office, it also takes money, sometimes a lot of money, to run for office. But the way in which we currently finance political campaigns limits who can get elected and the priorities of those elected officials.
The average winner of a Congressional contest in 2014 spent $1.2 million for a House seat and $8.6 million for a Senate seat. At the state level, the cost of running a successful campaign is also increasing. The burgeoning cost of campaigning leads candidates to reach for a small number of big-pocketed donors who can provide large sums of money.
As Dēmos research shows, this donor class accounts for a large portion of the total contributions in an electoral cycle. In 2014, 86 percent of all contributions came from this small cohort of wealthy donors. As my colleague Adam Lioz shows, this donor class is not just very wealthy, but also skews white and male.
The composition of the donor class makes sense because its membership reflects the top of America’s economic hierarchy. Moreover, given what we have learned about the class and educational biases among elected officials, the demographic composition of the donor class reinforces the racial and wealth hierarchies of our political class. As the Women Donors Network’s Reflective Democracy Campaign shows, the vast majority of elected officials in the country are also white and male. What we have learned about the donor class suggests that they get most of the contributions from people who look like them.
The role of the donor class may explain the major differences in fundraising between white candidates and candidates of color. In 2006, black candidates raised 47 percent less money than white candidates in state legislative races. This gap was even more pronounced in the south where black candidates raised 64 percent less money. Latino candidates face similar challenges. Analysis of donors in local elections in Chicago, Miami-Dade County, and Washington, DC by my colleague Sean McElwee yields similar findings about the donor class’s composition.
Beyond the effects on the descriptive representation of people of color, money in politics also affects their substantive representation. With the power of the purse, the donor class also has the power when setting the priorities of our elected officials. And the interests of the donor class are very different from those of the American population at large. The divergence of interests between the donor class and the general population is most evident in matters of inequality and the distribution of wealth.
A majority of Americans, and most Latinos, favor measures to alleviate poverty and improve economic opportunity, but the donor class cares much less about issues of redistribution. This difference in priorities partly explains our political class’ concern with a continuation of austerity measures even when all indicators show that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.
Another example comes from an issue that Latinos show a lot of concern: immigration. Polls constantly find Americans overwhelmingly in favor of a comprehensive immigration policy reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. As my colleague Sean McElwee and his coauthors find, the donor class has a more hardline take on immigration than the public at large.
Inequality and immigration are just two issues that show the disproportionate impact of the donor class in our political system. It shows that the problem of big money in politics is much more than a matter of corruption. The dependence on big money leads also to a political class that does not look like America and whose priorities are at odds with the needs of the people.