Because of this, there are strict regulations governing who can give to political campaigns, how much they’re allowed to donate, and how those donations are reported. The public interest in these regulations is clear: If money is influence, voters have a right to know who is influencing their elected officials.
Data released this week by the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog, underscores where most of that campaign money is (and isn’t) coming from: In the 2018 election cycle, less than 8 percent of the total campaign funds raised by winning U.S. House candidates came from small individual donations of $200 or less.
Figures like those underscore a key point about American politics: Representative democracy is largely bankrolled by the wealthy. And recent research shows that politicians in both parties are highly responsive to the interests of their wealthy donors — to the extent that it skews their understanding of what rank-and-file voters actually want.
Small-dollar donations are a useful barometer of broad grass-roots support. In a House race, for instance, 2,500 voters who donate $1 each are likely to be more representative of a congressional district than one donor who gives $2,500. For the purposes of campaign finance reporting, “small donors” are those who give less than $200 — the threshold at which campaigns must itemize individual contributions.
Two hundred dollars is a lot of money. Most Americans who donate to campaigns give less than $100, according to the Pew Research Center. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics indicate those small donations are just a tiny drop in the campaign finance bucket. Since 2008, winning House candidates' small-dollar share has never surpassed 8 percent. That means the typical candidate’s campaign is bankrolled overwhelmingly by people who give more than that — to say nothing of the influence of outside spending and dark money groups, which aren’t included in these tallies.
But such campaigns are a rarity. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2008 there have been 2,816 successful House and Senate campaigns. Just 14 of those campaigns — or about one half of 1 percent of them — have received a majority of their financial backing from small-dollar donors.
The picture in the Senate is largely similar to the picture in the House, with the caveat that Senate candidates tend to draw in a slightly higher share of their funding from small-dollar donors. One possible explanation for that is that Senate campaigns happen at the state level, typically involving a broader base of voters.
The charts above suggest that Democrats usually have an edge over Republicans when it comes to small-dollar donations. The gap between Republican and Democrats grew particularly large in the Senate this year. But in 2010 this dynamic flipped in both chambers, with Republicans winning greater small-dollar support. That year also happened to be a wave election for the Republican Party.
A much more significant factor than party, however, is incumbency. In 2018, successful challengers in House races and winners of open House seats drew about 14 percent of their financial support from small individual contributions. Among incumbents, on the other hand, the share was closer to just 6 percent. Length of incumbency didn’t particularly matter. Representatives entering office in 2017 drew roughly the same share of small-dollar support as longer-serving incumbents.
When it comes to small-dollar donations, incumbency appears to be the most important dividing line. Once lawmakers have established themselves in a seat, the big money donations start rolling in. This makes sense when you look at how representatives typically use their time. A widely circulated 2013 presentation from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee instructed lawmakers to spend four hours a day fundraising. Retiring members complain so frequently about fundraising obligations that it’s become something of a congressional cliche.
All that time spent fundraising is time spent not doing the people’s work. And it allows time for the wealthy and the powerful to exercise influence on lawmakers. A recent study found that the more money lawmakers took from corporate interests, the less they understood which policies their constituents actually support. It found that “45% of senior legislative staffers report having changed their opinion about legislation after a group gave their Member a campaign contribution.” It also found that congressional staffers generally viewed correspondence from business interests as being more representative of the public than letters from regular voters.
Because the rich and the powerful tend to be more politically conservative than the general public, the net effect of all this influence is policymaking that’s skewed more conservatively than what voters actually want. To give just one example, a recent study found that the minimum wage in every single state is set lower than what residents of those states would prefer.
That’s good news for business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that generally oppose minimum-wage increases. But it’s bad news for minimum-wage workers, many of whom would likely have difficulty giving money to their elected official even if they wanted to.