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40 charts that explain money in politics

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Money suffuses our political system. Candidates must spend huge sums to get elected, and once they do, well-funded interests spend huge sums to influence how they vote. Campaign finance laws are being struck down, and money is rushing into outside groups that don’t have to disclose their donors. Some studies have found companies can get as much as a 22,000 percent return on their lobbying dollars, while a recent poll from the Global Strategy Group found that more than 90 percent of Americans wants to reduce the role of money in politics. Here’s what’s going on — in charts, of course.

The big picture

1) More money is being spent on US politics than ever before

Overall spending Center for Responsive Politics

This chart drives home the most salient fact about money in politics: there’s more and more of it. This is true for both elections and lobbying. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled many of the statistics that made this feature possible, total federal election spending in 2012 was over $6.2 billion — double the $3 billion spent on the intensely competitive 2000 campaign. Federal lobbying spending has also doubled in the same period. And these are lowball estimates. Political ads airing months before an election that don’t expressly advocate a certain vote, and lobbying firms’ spending on PR, consulting, and “grassroots” organization, aren’t even included in these totals.

Donors: Who’s spending?

2) 0.26% of the population gives 68% of the money

People who give money Good Magazine

Very few people account for the vast majority of political donations. This infographic from Good Magazine shows that in 2010, only 0.26 percent of the US population — about 800,000 people overall — donated more than $200 to congressional campaigns. These donors provided more than two-thirds of all donations to those campaigns. So politicians end up reliant on a very tiny group of Americans to fund their campaigns — and that gives those Americans a lot of power over the political system.

3) Small donors don’t add up to very much

Small donors Campaign Finance Institute

The Internet age allows candidates to raise significant sums from small donors. Yet, for presidential candidates from both major parties, larger contributions remain more important. In 2012, President Obama raised only 28% of his campaign funds from donors who gave less than $200 overall, and Romney raised merely 12% from those donors. Both candidates got more of their money from donors giving at least $1,000 — in Romney’s case, much more. Obama got 39% of his funds from those donors, and Romney got 66%.

4) The most active political givers are very polarized

Sunlight Top 1000 donors Sunlight Foundation

The biggest political givers tend to be party loyalists. The Sunlight Foundation examined donations from the top 1,000 overall givers to federal campaigns and PACs in 2012, and found that 744 of them gave their money to only Democrats or only Republicans. Of those who did give to both parties, almost none were about equally split — for the vast majority a preference was clear. We can also see in the chart that, of these top donors, most of the largest donors favored Republicans (658 gave more to Republicans, 360 to Democrats, and 2 were even).

5) The Republican mega-donors

Conservative spenders Center for Responsive Politics

This chart provides a closer look at the top (disclosed) Republican spenders in 2012, how much they spent, and how they made their wealth. While contributions from various business sectors are important for a party building its fundraising base, newly-loosened campaign finance laws have led individual, idiosyncratic donors to provide more money than ever before. For instance, though the casino industry as a whole isn’t a major source of Republican funds, one particular casino billionaire — Sheldon Adelson — was a massively important source of money for GOP causes in 2012, spending over $92 million overall. (Unfortunately for the GOP, some of that was spent in support of Newt Gingrich in the presidential primary.)

6) The Democratic mega-donors

Liberal donors 2012 Center for Responsive Politics

And here’s a look at the Democratic mega-donors for the 2012 cycle, how much they gave, and how they made their wealth. Several, including top spender Fred Eychaner and Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, are involved in the media industry. George Soros and James Simons are among the financiers who still support the Democrats. Michael Bloomberg, the independent former mayor of New York City, is categorized as a liberal because most of his 2012 spending went to support Democratic candidates. A few are heirs — Amy Goldman is heir to a real estate fortune, and Jon Stryker is heir to a medical supply company. All 10 of these donors combined spent far less than Sheldon Adelson and his wife did in 2012.

7) Most Democratic funders are in just a few states

States of Obama bundlers Center for Responsive Politics

According to the New Yorker , “there are essentially three deep wells of Democratic cash in the country: New York, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley.” And here, we see that of Obama’s top 2012 bundlers — those who bundled more than $500,000 in contributions — nearly half were from New York, California, or Obama’s home state of Illinois.

8) Business donations going to each party, by sector

Sector spending Center for Responsive Politics

This chart shows some of the industries that spend the most on elections — and which party they support. Finance spent the most of any sector in 2012, shelling out $515 million — and 68% went to Republicans. The health sector also favored Republicans (56%), as did the energy sector (80%). But there are two major sectors that prefer Democrats: lawyers and lobbyists, who gave Democrats 67% of their money, and communications/electronics, where Democrats had a 63% share.

9) Unions spent over $4 billion on politics between 2005 and 2011

Union spending Wall Street Journal

Unions are important financial powerhouses in elections, but much of their spending is done in such a way that it doesn’t show up on FEC reports — it involves getting out the vote or internal communication with their members rather than paid TV ads. And it often focuses on state and local races rather than federal ones. The Wall Street Journal’s Tom McGinty and Brody Mullins analyzed union disclosures of political spending to the Labor Department and came up with these totals, which were much higher than previously known. In the 2010 election season, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions spent $608 million, the SEIU spent $150 million, and AFSCME (representing state, county, and municipal employees) spent $133 million. The vast majority of this money was spent in favor of Democratic candidates.

10) Finance money has moved to the GOP

Finance sector spending Center for Responsive Politics

One of the most important political stories in recent years has been a massive shift of finance sector money to the Republican Party. This chart shows that the GOP historically had an advantage in fundraising from financiers. That changed in 2008, when Obama managed to raise slightly more from Wall Street than McCain. But the Democrats’ advantage was short-lived: the increasing anti-bank sentiment on the left alongside Obama’s financial-regulation bill and proposed tax increases led many in the industry to cut back sharply on their giving to Democrats. By the 2012 election, finance money had swung hard towards Republicans, and the disparity between the parties in finance fundraising was greater than at any time in the past few decades.

Election spending

11) How often does the bigger spender win a Congressional race?

Higher-spending candidates Center for Responsive Politics

Consistently over the past decade, the Congressional candidate who spends the most money is more likely to win the election. But the causality isn’t entirely clear. Most House and Senate races are uncompetitive, and incumbents are reelected easily. Additionally, donors will often give money to the candidate already favored to win, and not to someone they expect to lose. Still, it’s clear that it’s not all that common for little-funded candidates to defeat heavily-funded ones.

12) The average cost of getting elected to Congress is soaring

Average seat cost CNN

As the battle for the Senate in 2014 heats up, it’s worth taking a look at just how much more expensive these races have gotten in recent decades. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Senate seat winners spent around $6 million in average — yet in 2012, the average was above $10 million. The average cost for a House seat has soared even more, quadrupling since 1986. And these numbers include completely noncompetitive races — the average for competitive seats is actually a good deal higher. Overall, it’s become clear that if you want to get into Congress, you probably need to raise a lot of cash.

13) Members of Congress have to spend a ton of time fundraising

As more and more money is needed to get and hold onto a Congressional seat, more and more of a representative’s time must be devoted to fundraising. This grim reality is made clear by this PowerPoint presentation to new members of Congress from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, delivered in November 2012 but later leaked to the Huffington Post. It recommends that, when members are in DC, they spend at least 4 hours a day on “call time” — phone calls with donors or potential donors — and another hour on strategic outreach, which can include fundraising breakfasts. There’s not too much time left to work on legislation after that.

14) Presidential campaign spending is overwhelmingly on TV ads in swing states

Ad spending map mod Data: Kantar, Analysis: John Sides, Washington Post

Presidential campaign money goes overwhelmingly to purchasing TV ads in just a few swing states. This map shows where ad spending was heaviest in 2012: Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, where more than $150 million was spent. Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada saw more than $50 million each. But most of the country saw nothing at all. Presidential campaigns have become a quadrennial stimulus bill for purple states funded by donors in red and blue states.

15) The first modern campaign finance restrictions were soon followed by a boom in PAC spending

PAC charts FEC, Corrado, Center for Responsive Politics

In the early 1970s, and particularly after the election spending abuses revealed in the Watergate scandal, Congress put new limits on donations to candidates. But the overall amount of money in politics didn’t decline. The money instead started going to PACs, or political action committees, rather than candidates. Thousands of new ones were formed, and they started raising hundreds of millions of dollars each year overall. This shows a problem for would-be campaign finance regulators: If one particular aspect of election spending is regulated or capped, big money will try to find another way in.

16) The Supreme Court has struck down many limitations on election spending

SCOTUS campaign finance

Over the past four decades, Congressional attempts to regulate the campaign finance system have repeatedly been stymied by the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. This table lists the major cases in which the court has ruled campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional — and how closely divided the court has been in every case. The first major such case was Buckley v. Valeo, in 1976, which struck down much of the newly-adopted campaign finance infrastructure in the name of free speech. The next major campaign finance overhaul — the 2002 McCain-Feingold law — survived an initial court challenge in 2003. But after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was replaced with the more conservative Sam Alito in 2006, the court had a majority that objected to major provisions of the law. Since then, a series of 5-4 decisions have narrowed the scope of permissible campaign finance regulations further and further.

17) Lately, big money has shifted to Super PACs and non-disclosing groups

Who spends the money? Daniel Tokaji and Renata Strause

PACs were the main destination for big money throughout the 1980s. But eventually, the $5,000 per person contribution limits grew too annoying. Wealthy donors wanted to spend larger sums, and looked for ways of doing so. In the 1990s, parties exploited a loophole to raise unlimited amounts of “soft” money. After the McCain-Feingold law closed that loophole, the unlimited contributions moved to 527 groups. But since the Citizens United ruling, big money has overwhelmingly gone to two places. First, Super PACs, can raise and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates — but they have to disclose their donors. Second, certain nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts of secret money — but they aren’t supposed to be focused on elections (these are the groups at the center of the IRS scandal).

18) Now, outside spending is soaring

Outside spending Center for Responsive Politics

Since there are limits to how much a person or corporation can contribute to a candidate, but no limits on how much they can spend with an outside group, there’s been an explosion of “outside spending” — that is, spending that doesn’t come from candidates or parties. More and more, our elections are influenced by big-spending individuals or groups that operate outside of traditional political party roles. Now, some of the early numbers here are so low in part because the big money was going directly to parties at the time, before the soft money loophole was closed in 2002. It’s also clear that the trend was already upward before the court rulings. But after the 2010 decision, the increase is spectacular. From the 2006 midterms to the 2010 midterms — the first post-Citizens United election — outside spending increased by a factor of seven. In 2012, outside spending totaled over $1 billion.

19) And dark money spending is soaring

Dark money soaring Center for Responsive Politics

An incredible amount of this new outside money spending is coming from groups that don’t disclose their donors, in what’s commonly referred to as “dark money.” This is quite a new phenomenon for US federal elections, as this chart shows — such spending was practically nonexistent as recently as 2004. The previous popular destinations for big money — PACs, political parties’ soft money accounts, and 527 groups — all had to disclose their donors to the FEC. But the Citizens United decision emboldened donors who wanted to keep their political spending secret. Increasingly, nonprofits under Section 501c4 or 501c6 of the tax code began to spend huge sums on elections — over $310 million in 2012 alone. And we’ll likely never know where most of this money came from.

20) These are the top dark money groups of 2012

Dark money 2012 Center for Responsive Politics

In 2012, dark money spending on election ads was dominated by conservative groups, as you can see in this chart of how much spending these groups reported to the FEC. This is actually a low-end estimate of dark money spending — these groups don’t have to report early attack ads against candidates, or spending on polling or voter turnout operations. But from what is reported, we see the leading spenders are Crossroads GPS (affiliated with former Bush aide Karl Rove), Americans for Prosperity (a free market group closely tied to the Koch brothers), and the US Chamber of Commerce, which accepts contributions from corporations across the country. The only liberal group cracking the top 10 in dark money was the 501c4 arm of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group.

21) The Koch brothers’ convoluted network of dark money groups

Kochtopus Robert Maguire, Center for Responsive Politics

During the 2012 elections, one dark money network was particularly elaborate and influential — the one tied to the billionaire Koch brothers, which spent at least $400 million on the effort. This graphic, by Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics, shows the complexity, and even the absurdity, of how far their network would go to obscure the sources of its funding. Note that there are three hubs in the center — TC4 Trust (in red), Freedom Partners (in green), and the Center to Protect Patient Rights (in blue) — that each send millions of dollars to a web of smaller groups which then pay for ads and turnout operations. These smaller groups themselves often operate under various aliases to make the donations harder to trace. For instance, rather than disclosing that it was sending money to Americans for Prosperity, one of the hub groups would send money instead to PRDIST LLC, a “disregarded entity” of AFP. Though the original donors remain secret, the activities of the groups do have to be reported on tax forms — but these forms don’t have to be sent in until well after the election’s over. As a result, reporters didn’t realize that many of these groups were connected to the Kochs until months later.

22) Money isn’t everything (Cantor vs. Brat)

Cantor Brat Time

Though the power of big money can be formidable, it’s good to keep things in perspective. We can do that by remembering the shocking defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to little-known and little-funded challenger Dave Brat. This chart, put together by Time magazine, shows that as of May 19, 2014 (the final pre-primary report filed) Cantor spent vastly more on basically every aspect of his campaign than Brat had spent in total. Indeed, Cantor spent more money at steakhouses (where he held fundraisers) than Brat spent in the entire election. But all that fundraising was for nought in the end.

Lobbying and Advocacy

23) These groups spend the most on lobbying

This chart shows the 12 biggest spenders on federal lobbying between 1998 and 2014. The Chamber of Commerce is far and away the heaviest hitter, topping $1 billion in that period. Also notable are four groups from the health industry (PhRMA, the AMA, the American Hospital Association, and Blue Cross/Blue Shield), two from energy (General Electric and Exxon-Mobil), and two defense contractors (Northrop Grumman and Boeing). The AARP, which lobbies for seniors, is the only one of the 12 not lobbying for a business interest.

24) These sectors spend the most on lobbying

Lobbying Center for Responsive Politics

The top-lobbying sectors, again, are dominated by business interests. The health, finance, telecom, and energy sectors have all spent between $4 and $6 billion lobbying the federal government since 1998. In contrast, all ideological or single-issue groups — those lobbying for causes rather than businesses — spent less than $2 billion combined over that period, and all labor unions spent a mere $590 million. Part of this is because many labor unions spend more money on state and local lobbying rather than federal lobbying. But overall, it makes clear that there’s a very serious disparity between the resources available to business and those available to, well, everyone else.

25) Having more lobbyists doesn’t mean you’ll win

Lobbying chart Baumgartner et al, “Lobbying and Policy Change”

On contested issues, how often does the side with more money get its way? Five political scientists addressed this question in the book “Lobbying and Policy Change.” In these graphs, each dot represents an issue on which there was lobbying. The dots above the solid diagonal line are issues where more financial resources were mobilized for the status quo; the dots below it are issues where more resources are mobilized for change. And the upper graph shows only issues where policy change did not occur, while the lower graph shows issues where policy change did occur. Overall, there’s no clear correlation — the side with more financial resources often doesn’t get its way. However, on issues there is a large resource disparity — represented by dots outside the dotted lines — the side with more resources is somewhat more likely to win.

26) Congress responds more to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of average people

Gilens chart Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics

Who really matters in our democracy — the general public, or wealthy elites? These charts, from a study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, seek to answer that question. The first one — the flat line — shows that as more and more average citizens support action on an issue, they’re not any more likely to get what they want. That’s a shocking finding in a democracy. In contrast, the next chart shows that as more economic elites want a certain policy change, they do become more likely to get what they want. Specifically, if fewer than 20 percent of wealthy Americans supported a policy change, it only happened about 18 percent of the time. But when 80 percent of them were in support, the change ended up happening 45 percent of the time. There’s no similar effect for average Americans.

27) Over $400 million has been spent on ads attacking Obamacare

Obamacare ad spending Kantar Media/Associated Press Report

Obamacare was signed into law in March 2010 — but where big money is concerned, the fight against the law didn’t stop there. Since then, conservative groups have spent massive amounts of money on ads attacking the law. Kantar Media tracked $418 million of spending on negative political ads — and a mere $27 million worth of positive political ads referencing the law.

28) Donors get more access to politicians and their staffers

Donor access Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

It’s commonly understood that campaign donations buy access to politicians and their staffers. And earlier this year, the first-ever randomized field experiment was conducted to help prove it. Joshua Kalla and David Broockman of UC Berkeley had a group try to schedule meetings between 191 Congressional offices and people who had donated to their campaigns. But sometimes the group pointed out that the people seeking meetings were donors — and sometimes they didn’t. As you can see in the chart, when the meeting-seeker was explicitly revealed to be a donor, he was four times as likely to get a meeting with the chief of staff, and twice as likely to get a meeting with the member of Congress.

Politicians’ and their staffers’ money

29) Most members of Congress are millionaires

Congress Median Net Worth Center for Responsive Politics

This table from shows the median net worth of members of Congress — about $1 million. The median for the House is $896,000, and the even-richer Senate has a median net worth of $2.7 million. There are several likely reasons for this. It’s helpful to have some financial security if you’re going to invest in a months- or years-long campaign, with no guarantee of success at the end. It also makes fundraising easier: wealthy people are more likely to know other wealthy people — and, therefore, to be able to raise more money for campaigns. It’s worth noting that the richest members of each chamber — Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) — are self-made multimillionaires.

30) Many members of Congress eventually become lobbyists

Former members becoming lobbyists Center for Responsive Politics

Another important way money influences politics is in possible future job opportunities for members of Congress. Most of them won’t be in Congress forever, after all — and, after leaving their positions, many become eager to monetize the connections they’ve made. This chart from the Center for Responsive Politics shows what former members do after they retire or lose reelection. 33 percent of them go to lobbying firms, and another 21 percent go to clients of lobbying firms. Indeed, nearly half of the members of Congress who left after 2010 are now in lobbyist or lobbying-related jobs.

31) Many Congressional aides turn to lobbying

Baucus aides Muckety

Infamously, many Congressional staffers also partake in the “revolving door” — working for Congress, and then cashing out to become lobbyists. Former senator Max Baucus (D-MT), who stepped down as Finance Committee chairman earlier this year to become ambassador to China, was particularly notorious for running a revolving-door office. This graphic by Muckety shows the web of former Baucus staffers who’ve become lobbyists, with lines drawn to who they work for now. From banks like JP Morgan, to health insurers like Aetna, to defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Baucus staffers have wrangled big paydays from corporate interests eager to influence the powerful tax-writing committee.

32) The most famous political figures can make millions in speaking fees

Bill Clinton speaking fees CNN

For the top echelon of famous and recognizable political figures, there’s another way to cash in after leaving offices — by giving high-priced speeches to corporate groups. Former politicians and aides from both parties participate in this practice — the more famous they are, the higher the fee they tend to be able to charge. But the undisputed king of speaking fees is Bill Clinton, who charges at least $250,000 per speech — and charged $750,000 for at least one. This chart, based on data assembled by CNN, shows how speaking fees have made Clinton over $100 million since he left office.

33) Congressional staffers can take trips funded by foreign governments

Foreign travel Washington Post

After the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Congress put several new restrictions on gifts that could be offered to members of Congress or their staffers. Yet there’s one significant loophole that remains — Congressional staffers are allowed to take trips abroad funded by foreign governments.The Washington Post’s TW Farnam reported on paid trips taken by Congressional staffers last year, and the map here is our depiction of Farnam’s findings. Between 2006 and 2011, 226 staffers took trips to China, 121 to Taiwan, and 65 to Saudi Arabia — where those countries’ governments footed the bill.

34) Many ambassadors were big campaign contributors

Ambassador map Center for Public Integrity

Bundlers for victorious presidential campaigns often expect some kind of reward — and frequently, in the Obama administration, the reward is an ambassadorship. This map shows how many of those jobs in Obama’s second term have gone to bundlers and other political appointees (like Max Baucus in China or Caroline Kennedy in Japan) compared to career diplomats. Ambassadorships in Western Europe are particularly likely to be given to bundlers. For instance, Obama’s nominee as ambassador to Norway, hotel executive George Tsunis, has never visited the country and seemed to know little about it during a Senate confirmation hearing.

How the states do things

35) State contribution limits vary

Gov contribution limits National Conference of State Legislatures

While federal elections are subject to federal law, states get to decide how they run their own elections — and there’s a lot of variety. This map shows how much one person can give a candidate for governor in each state. Some states, including Montana, Colorado, and New Hampshire, are extremely stringent, capping contributions at $1,000 or below. At the other end of the spectrum, 12 states allow unlimited donations, including Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Alabama.

36) Public financing is not widespread

Public Financing states National Conference of State Legislatures

The favored proposal for many reformers is public financing for campaigns. The thinking is, if the government supplies campaign money to candidates, those candidates will be less dependent on contributions from wealthy donors. But only a few states have seriously experimented with public financing so far. This map shows which states have done so for governor’s races — and which merely have partial financing systems. The map is limited to state governor’s races, for simplicity — some other states have varying systems of public financing for legislative or judicial races.

37) Millions are spent on state judicial elections

State Supreme Court election spending Brennan Center

Can justice be bought? If so, how much would it cost? Nearly half of states hold elections for their Supreme Court seats — and sometimes those elections can get very expensive. The Brennan Center totaled how much money was spent on state Supreme Court elections between 2011 and 2012. Millions were spent in Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina. But the clear winner was Michigan, where $13 million was spent as conservatives successfully fought to maintain their 4-3 majority. The state’s former chief justice Elizabeth Weaver, a Republican, authored a book last year saying the court was corrupted by “dark money.”

38) State ethics laws wildly vary

State corruption map Center for Public Integrity

Ethics laws are another area in which states are very different. The Center for Public Integrity rated states on several factors — including transparency, management of the state pension fund, campaign finance regulation, and ethics enforcement — to see which stacked up the best. The Center’s Caitlin Ginley noted in an accompanying article that some states, like Idaho, Vermont, and Michigan, have absolutely no financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers and executive branch officials. Wyoming, South Dakota, Michigan, Virginia, Maine, South Carolina are among the worst. Surprisingly, New Jersey has the toughest ethics laws in the country — they were recently passed after some particularly embarrassing scandals. We’ll see if they actually work.

39) Pay for state legislators is quite different

State Legislator Pay The Economist

State legislators’ salaries vary wildly across the country. Overall, the national average of pay is quite low — merely $28,300 a year. In several rural states, where they’re expected to work only part-time, legislators are paid only a few thousand a year. In New Mexico they’re paid nothing. At the other end of the spectrum, California, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan all pay over $70,000 a year. In some states, the gripe is that legislators are paid too much — in others, it’s that they’re paid too little, which could lead to corruption as they seek to enrich themselves elsewhere.


40) The Super PAC and dark money universe

Mother Jones dark money Mother Jones

We’ll close with this cool graphic from Mother Jones, which depicts the various centers of Super PACs and dark money circa 2012, at appropriate size, across a starry backdrop. Click here to see the full interactive version. But, arrayed like this, doesn’t our Supreme Court-given future of big money look kind of... beautiful? No? Well, maybe if you were a political consultant.

Learn more

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