The biggest political donors aren’t just wealthier than the median voter. A study from the think tank Demos suggests they also tend to be disproportionately white, male and right-wing.
In an analysis of donor data from the most recent local elections in Washington, D.C., Demos found the city’s donor pool was significantly less diverse than its overall population. The District of Columbia historically has been dubbed the “chocolate city” for its large African-American community (which hovered just above 50 percent in the 2010 Census) and comparatively small white population, yet Demos found two-thirds of the donors in 2014 City Council races were white. White voters also comprised 62 percent of the donors in that year’s mayoral race.
The higher one goes up the contribution ladder, the whiter it gets. So while 53 percent of the donors who gave $25 or less in the mayoral race were white, white contributors accounted for 69 percent of those who gave $500 to $1,000.
Similarly, large donors were far more likely to be registered Republicans with six-figure incomes. And while women comprise more than half of all adults in the District of Columbia, they made up roughly a third of the donors who give more than $500.
On the other hand, the pool of small contributors is far closer, demographically, to the city at large.
“If you’re only looking above $200, you’re missing a lot of where we have diversity in the donor class,” Demos researcher Sean McElwee told International Business Times.
The Federal Election Commission doesn’t track itemized contributions in federal elections below $200, making it harder to figure out exactly who is giving money in smaller amounts. But the rules vary in local elections, and Demos was able to get a clear picture of those smaller contributors in Washington.
To figure out contributor demographics, Demos cross-checked the city’s list of donors against the Catalist database, a Democratic voter list that includes demographic information on 240 million voting-age Americans nationwide, according to the firm’s website. By using the database, Demos was able to get a clearer sense of who, exactly, gave money in the District’s most recent local elections — something that is not always clear from other literature on political contributions.
“There’s not really any literature on the demographics of donors, broadly,” McElwee said. “You don’t have the race, gender and income of donors when their names are disclosed."
And because the FEC doesn’t ask campaigns to itemize smaller contributions, the inverse correlation between contribution size and diversity gets lost.
“At the smallest level, women are incredibly well-represented in the donor class,” McElwee said. That ceases to be true if one only looks at contributions in amounts greater than $100.
At least in some races, small donors might be gaining a greater voice in the electoral process. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to raise more than $200 million while depending heavily on modest, double-digit contributions. Though he failed to unseat presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he did prove it is possible to run a credible, top-tier primary campaign that is powered by smaller donations.
That doesn’t just mean bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of political fundraising, McElwee said. It also means relying on a financial base that is more representative of the electorate at large.
“If you increase and empower that smaller donor pool, you’re going to get a more representative group of donors that are giving to the candidates,” he said.