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Press release/statement

New Analysis: Tiny Number of Wealthy Contributors Match Millions of Small Donors, Will Continue to Set Agenda In Washington

WASHINGTON – A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by U.S. PIRG and Demos shows that just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving an average of $4.7 million each matched the $285.2 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to the two major-party presidential candidates.


In addition, just 132 donors giving at least $1 million were responsible for 60.4% of the money Super PACs raised.  $71.8 million of Super PAC money came from for-profit businesses.

Turning your megaphone up to eleven won’t mean you always get your way—but it sure increases your chances, and it sure makes it hard to hear the rest of us

Analysts say this is troubling because the very wealthy and corporations do not have the same priorities as the general public, and so the outsized influence of a small number of donors skews policy outcomes to the detriment of working families.  As one example, they point to survey data showing that wealthy respondents care much more about deficits than unemployment—the exact opposite of the majority of Americans.

“The wealthy care much more about deficits, average Americans care about jobs, and guess what Washington will be obsessing over for the next few weeks,” said Demos Counsel Adam Lioz.  “Hint: it’s not major programs to get folks back to work. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and we know that most rich donors dance to different music than the majority of Americans.”

This week citizens pushed back on our big-money system by passing two state-level and 172 city level anti-Citizens United ballot initiatives and by electing several candidates in high-profile contents in spite of onslaughts of outside spending targeting their defeat.  But, analysts say that money still matters in politics.

“Some big spenders lost this week,” said U.S. PIRG Democracy Advocate Blair Bowie.  “But that won’t break Washington’s addiction to campaign cash.”

“These outside spending groups act as megaphones for millionaires,” said Lioz.  “Turning your megaphone up to eleven won’t mean you always get your way—but it sure increases your chances, and it sure makes it hard to hear the rest of us.”

Allowing corporations to spend in elections and the wealthy few to amplify their voices in the public square threatens the basic American value of political equality, according to Lioz and Bowie. Recent polling shows broad bipartisan outrage over political spending, and analysts point to several reasons that outrage should and will persist after this week’s elections:

  • A tiny number of wealthy individuals and corporate interests continue to set the agenda in Washington and in state capitals across America.
  • The outcome of down-ticket races are more easily swayed by injections of big money than high-profile presidential and senate contests where there is plenty of media coverage and general awareness of candidates and their positions.
  • Large donors and big spenders enjoy preferred access to and influence over winning candidates—giving them another, direct chance to shape the agenda in Washington and state capitals across America, and undermining citizens’ confidence in our democracy.
  • The threat of massive outside spending is ever-present, shaping candidate behavior and forcing them to spend time on a high-stakes arms race rather than engaging voters or actually governing (in the case of incumbents).

The authors recommend specific policy solutions at both the state and federal levels to overcome these obstacles and build a campaign finance system grounded in democratic principles.  Among others, proposals include: a) Matching small contributions with public funds would help candidates focus their campaign time on constituents, rather than big donors; b) A system of tax credits for small contributions to federal candidates was in place through the mid-eighties and should be restored; and c) Vouchers for small contributions would also significantly increase donor participation among non-wealthy Americans.


This is the fourth release in the PIRG and Demos series of analyses on the role of money in the 2012 elections.  Previous reports are available herehere, and here. Today’s release shows the overwhelming influence of a tiny number of wealthy donors.  The organizations plan to release a comprehensive analysis of election fundraising and spending in January 2013.