MONEY IN OUR ELECTIONS (Part 2): WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?

Here’s issue #14 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 1/8/12. The previous issue examined the total dollar amounts for federal election campaigns overall and on a per office basis. Now, I’ll start to take a look at where all the money comes from.

The money contributed to federal election candidates comes from 5 sources:

  • Large individual donations, which are $200 or more and have to be reported with the individual’s name and are supposed to include the individual’s employer and occupation
  • Small individual donations of less than $200 where the individual’s name is not reported
  • Political Action Committees (PACs)
  • Self-funding by candidates
  • Other, miscellaneous sources

The percentages for the 2010 election cycle for Congressional seats are as follows: [1]

Congress in 2010

Large Indiv.

Small Indiv.

PACs

Self

Other

Senate

53%

12%

15%

12%

8%

House

47%

9%

38%

3%

3%

The dominance of the large individual contributions is dramatic, and even more so when one examines the overall contributions of these individuals. And even more dramatic if the focus is on the largest of these contributors.

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals each contributed a total of more than $10,000 to federal election campaigns. (This group is roughly 1 out of every 10,000 Americans, or 1% of the 1%, i.e., 0.01% of Americans.) Combined, these contributors gave $774 million to politicians, political parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. This 0.01% of Americans contributed 24.3% of all contributions from individuals. Overwhelmingly, these individuals are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, or lawyers. [2]

On average, they contributed $28,913, which is more than the median individual income in the US of $26,364. The top 3,480 donors gave $336 million in total, an average of almost $100,000 each, with:

  • The top 17 contributors averaging $1.6 million each for a total of $28 million
  • The next 995 averaging $136,000 each for a total of $136 million
  • The next 2,468 averaging $70,000 each for a total of $172 million

As a result, these extremely wealthy contributors have unique access to and influence on our elected officials and political parties. Leaders of both parties are very aware that more than 80% of party money comes from these few donors. Although elections may be one person, one vote, the disproportionate influence of these few donors on who runs for office, who gets elected, and what policies are enacted, undermines the core of our supposed democracy.

In future issues, I will look at some likely results of the access and influence of large contributors; the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision; the supposedly independent expenditures that are not part of candidates’ official campaigns; fundraising for presidential campaigns; contributions from business, labor, and ideological sources; and other important campaign fundraising topics.


[1]       The Center for Responsive Politics, retrieved 12/31/11, “Where the Money Came From,” http://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/wherefrom.php?cycle=2010

[2]       Drutman and Phelps-Goodman, 12/13/11, “The Political One Percent of the One Percent,” Sunlight Foundation, http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2011/12/13

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