Executive Summary

Over the last three decades, the Supreme Court has curtailed meaningful limits on political campaign spending and contributions. The alarming, but predictable, result is the rise of a small group of wealthy elites who make large political contributions with the goal of influencing election outcomes and policymaking. We are left with a government that is less responsive to the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans, and more responsive to the needs and concerns of economic elites.

To understand what big money in politics means, it is important to understand the “who” and the “what” of political donations: who is spending big money on elections, and what do they want? 

In the following analysis, we uncover the demographics (the “who) and policy preferences (the “what”) of the donor class that dominates U.S. campaign funding, in order to shed light on why money in politics is distorting our democracy in favor of economic elites, and particularly white male elites. Drawing on unique data sets and original data analyses, for the first time we are able to see who is—and is not—represented among big political donors and how their policy concerns differ. The data reveal that the donor class is in fact profoundly unrepresentative of the American population as a whole, and particularly of low-income people and people of color. Our analysis encompasses federal elections in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Some of our key findings include

Who is represented in the donor class? 

  • Only 3 percent of the U.S. population possesses more than $1,000,000 in wealth. Among congressional donors giving more than $5,000, 45 percent are millionaires.
  • While three-quarters of the adult population is white, and about 63 percent of the total population is white, 91 percent of federal election donors in 2012 and 92 percent of donors in 2014 were white. Among donors giving more than $5,000, 94 percent were white in 2014 and 93 percent were white in 2012.
  • Men make up slightly less than half of the population, but comprise 63 percent of federal election donors. The pool of donors who give more than $1,000 has less gender diversity, with men making up 65 percent of donors giving more than $5,000.
  • White men represent 35 percent of the adult population, but comprise 45 percent of donors and account for 57 percent of money contributed.

Who contributed to the 2016 presidential election?

  • White men accounted for 48 percent of presidential donors in the period of the 2016 election cycle studied (January 1, 2015 – July 31, 2016). Sixty-four percent of Trump’s donors were white men compared to 33 percent of Clinton’s donors.
  • Both 2016 presidential candidates relied on the very wealthy. Millionaires make up 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.

How are big donors’ views misaligned with the views of non-donors and donors of color?

  • Only 39 percent of large ($1,000+) donors supported the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill, which would have instituted a cap and trade system aiming to reduce carbon emissions, compared to 63 percent of non-donors.
  • Only 35 percent of large donors supported the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the Great Recession “stimulus plan”), which created or saved millions of American jobs, compared with 54 percent of non-donors.
  • Just under half of large donors (48%) supported the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which established a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and helped restore stability to the financial system, compared with 74 percent of non-donors.
  • Fifty-four percent of large ($1,000+) donors supported the Bowles-Simpson austerity plan, while 39 percent of non-donors did.
  • Forty-five percent of white male donors believe that abortion should always be available as a matter of choice, compared with 61percent of women of color who donated to a campaign.
  • Only 25 percent of elite ($5,000+) donors say their first choice to reduce the deficit would be cuts to defense spending, while 42 percent of adults in the general public say that would be their first choice.
  • Only 44 percent of elite ($5,000+) donors supported the Affordable Care Act, which has insured 20 million Americans, compared with 53 percent of adults.

Demos’ findings in this report shed disturbing new light on the deep inequalities embedded in our big-money elections, and help to explain how political inequality is intertwined with growing economic inequality. 

This report sharply underscores the urgent need for comprehensive reforms to reverse the dominance of big money in politics. While the Supreme Court has substantially narrowed the scope of potential reforms, public funding of elections is one significant reform that we can implement immediately, particularly with the goal of empowering small (less than $200) and very small donors in the election process. The longer-term but no less important need revealed by this report is to reverse the Supreme Court’s stance on reasonable limits on campaign spending and contributions. 

A democracy that does not give equal voice to all people within its governance is a democracy in name only. As we demonstrate here, the political donor class is far from representative of the American people as a whole and particularly of lower-income residents and people of color, who need representation the most. In this light, it is clear that if we do not establish meaningful limits on the role of big money in politics, our democracy cannot fulfill its promise of serving the needs of the many over the preferences of the few.

Download the full report to learn more