One of the most persistent knocks on Hillary Clinton is that she's too close to Wall Street and Washington's K Street lobbying industry.
It's true that Clinton, a former New York senator, has strong ties to the titans of finance: Big banks and investors are generous donors to the Clinton Foundation; they've given to this campaign and Clinton's past bids; and some of Clinton's closest allies in politics have been through the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street. Similarly, many Clinton backers, including some former aides to her and her husband, lobby for a living.
But a close look at Clinton's first campaign finance report of the 2016 presidential campaign shows that she raised $46 million with limited backing from the nation's top financial institutions and lobbying firms.
Instead, as her campaign has long maintained, Clinton's war chest is being stocked by a wide base of supporters. The richest sources of cash for her include federal workers, lawyers, media company employees, Hollywood agents, and California state workers — and, yes, a handful of Wall Street investment houses and prominent Washington lobbying firms.
At a time when Clinton is trying to counter the narrative that she's beholden to Wall Street and corporate America — represented in Washington by K Street lobbyists — the numbers show that she doesn't yet depend on their contributions. That, coupled with the pressure of rising populism in the electorate, may explain why Clinton feels she has plenty of political latitude to propose tightening financial industry regulations, raising capital gains taxes, and punishing corporate executives whose companies break the rules.
As Vox's Matthew Yglesias has written, Clinton was known for her relative antipathy toward Wall Street during her husband's administration — telling Bill Clinton that he wasn't elected to help Wall Street, pushing him to rail against CEO pay, and successfully lobbying him to veto a bankruptcy bill favored by big banks. When she represented New York in the Senate, Clinton became more of an advocate for the Big Apple's marquee industry, reversing course on the bankruptcy bill and opposing any increase in taxes on capital gains. But now, in concert with the rise of left-wing economics in the Democratic Party, Clinton is returning to her more liberal roots.
Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state under Clinton who is now a top executive at the Wall Street investment bank Morgan Stanley, said he wasn't surprised that firms like his weren't Clinton's top sources of campaign cash.
"She's got a broad base of support financially," said Nides, who helped Clinton raise more than $85,000 from Morgan Stanley employees — her largest sum on Wall Street — and is one of her strongest links to New York's financial industry. (The sums are rounded down to the nearest $1,000, and are described as "at least" because this analysis relies on only the donors Clinton identified in her reports. Under federal law, she did not have to disclose contributors who gave less than $200.)
In addition to the $46 million Clinton raised for her campaign committee, two Super PACs that support her — Priorities USA and American Bridge — collected $24 million through the end of June, including $2 million apiece from billionaire investor George Soros and media mogul Haim Saban.
Under campaign finance law, the Super PACs can solicit and accept unlimited donations, but they can't coordinate with Clinton's campaign. They are legally distinct and typically funded by the party's most prolific longtime donors. Because Clinton doesn't control that money, because the "hard" dollars her campaign raises are more important to her primary strategy, and because the Super PACs haven't filed donor reports yet, the figures in this story deal with the contributions to her official campaign account. The Super PAC filing deadline is Friday.
The biggest private source of money is a law firm that doesn't lobby the federal government
John Morgan is one of the nation's most prominent trial lawyers. His Florida-based firm, Morgan & Morgan, was the largest private source of contributions to Clinton, registering at least $257,000 in contributions.
We asked Morgan, who has funded the drive to legalize medical marijuana in the Sunshine State, why he and his colleagues ponied up so much cash. He gave two distinct answers, neither of which had to do with a particular area of public policy that he seeks to influence.
"I would say one overriding issue is our concern about how our Supreme Court will look in the next four and eight years. To us, the Supreme Court has become more important than House or Senate races. Therefore, the presidential election is more important to us," he said. "Citizens United is a case in point of why the Supreme Court has just got it wrong. We have just a few oligarchs. They used to buy racehorses and sports teams and now they are buying presidents, and that is a direct result of this Supreme Court."
Three of the nine justices — Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy — will be in their 80s when the next president is sworn in, and Justice Stephen Breyer will be 78.
The other reason Morgan said he gave is one that both speaks to Clinton's strength within the Democratic Party and tracks with a point of attack from Republican presidential candidates.
"I’m very happy with the last six and half years of Barack Obama. If I could get another eight years of that, I think most Americans would like it," he said. "I just want more of the same, and I think that’s what she’ll be for us."
That's a controversial proposition, even within Morgan's firm. The other name partner, Morgan's wife, Ultima, is a Bush backer. She may raise money for Bush from Morgan & Morgan lawyers later this year, he said.
But it's apparently not that unusual in the legal community. Clinton's campaign report, which covered the three months ending June 30, is littered with the hallmark ampersands of big law firms: Latham & Watkins; Munger, Tolles & Olson; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
Even federal employees and Ivory Tower types gave more than any big bank
The breakdown of top givers, which only includes those who gave to Clinton's official campaign committee, is defined in part by the design of her early fundraising program.
Clinton chose to focus on building that war chest — as opposed to the Democratic Super PACs that support her — in the early phases of her campaign. Donors can give unlimited amounts to a Super PAC, an advantage to wealthy contributors because they have more money to give.
Conversely, Clinton's emphasis on raising the "hard" dollars her actual campaign controls — limited to $2,700 per donor in the primary — has had a democratizing effect on the composition of her fundraising base.
The most common employer among her donors is the federal government, an anomaly that speaks to the size of that workforce and to Clinton's relative popularity with bureaucrats. She collected at least $348,000 from US government employees, including $64,000 from State Department and US Agency for International Development workers.
State and municipal workers — most notably those in California and New York — gave heavily to her, as did employees of her law school alma mater, Yale University. With at least $85,000 in contributions, Yale's employees gave as much to Clinton as Morgan Stanley's did. And Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency ranked just above Yale, with donations totaling at least $86,000.
As a result, the relative strength of donors who seek influence by bundling contributions from co-workers and friends has been less than might have been expected from a candidate so readily identified as an ally of monied interests.
It also means that as Clinton begins to focus more on raising for Democratic Super PACs, corporations and wealthy investors may become more prominent in her network of financial backers.
But for now, big banks and lobbying shops are only a small piece of her fundraising picture.
The corner of influence: Wall Street and K Street
Wall Street and K Street were hardly absent from Clinton's fundraising report.
Many corporate executives, and even the lowest-level DC lobbyists, understand that their political contributions can help secure access and influence. When employees of a single company give in a cluster, it's generally assumed — and usually rightly so — that they're helping advance the easily defined interests of their employer (and showing themselves to be team players in the process).
Of the 23 employers outside the federal government that accounted for $50,000 or more in contributions to Clinton, five have lobbying practices and three are big banks.
Morgan Stanley is the only investment house that ranked in Clinton's top 10 sources of contributions, tying for eighth place with Yale. J.P. Morgan and Bank of America were the only other financial firms that accounted for more than $50,000, with J.P. Morgan providing at least $70,000 and BOA employees just topping $50,000. Together, these three banks gave far less than the Morgan & Morgan law firm, which does not lobby the federal government.
Still, like water seeking its own level, professional influence-seekers find ways to court power.
Sullivan & Cromwell, which lobbies on behalf of Goldman Sachs and General Electric, delivered at least $142,000 to Clinton; Akin Gump, which claims Chevron and Dow Corning as clients, accounted for $119,000; DLA Piper, which lobbies for Oracle and Raytheon, checked in at $72,000; Skadden Arps, which has a very limited roster of clients that includes US Steel, pumped in at least $65,000; and WilmerHale, whose clients include Apple and Monsanto, provided at least $56,000.
But they are often lobbying on different issues for different clients with different interests — and when they're lobbying on the same issue, it's often from different sides. And some of those listed are big law firms with very small lobbying practices. So while Clinton did get a lot of money from lobbyists, both at these firms and others, they won't all be trying to get the same things from her if she's elected. That's why their contributions can't really be lumped together as a single sector.
Clinton's finance report dovetails with her more populist message, but it's important to remember there are Super PACs assisting her, too
It's fair to say that Clinton seldom meets a dollar she won't take. She and her husband have been monster fundraisers for campaigns, the Clinton Foundation, and their own bank account. They've taken millions of dollars over the years from the nation's biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. They even rewarded 1990s donors with overnight stays in the White House's Lincoln Bedroom.
But Clinton is sensitive to the optics of being too close to what Democratic rival Bernie Sanders calls the "billionaire class." And with good reason, given her historic ties to Wall Street donors and the Super PAC that's raising funds on her behalf. That sensitivity helps explain why her campaign has been quick to cite the breadth of its in-house fundraising operation and the percentage of donors — 94 percent — who gave $250 or less.
In fact, the vast majority of her roughly 250,000 contributors gave so little that they did not have to be listed by name and employer in Clinton's filing with the Federal Election Commission. The data set only includes only 23,000 or so donors, most of whom gave between $200 and $2,700.
The numbers reinforce the message that Clinton is pushing on the campaign trail.
"Hillary Clinton is committed to making sure we have an economy that works for all Americans and not just those at the top. That’s why she believes that the measure of our success must be defined by how much incomes rise for hard-working families, not just CEO’s and money managers," campaign spokesperson Josh Schwerin said. "Regardless of the size of their donation, the people who support Hillary’s campaign know that’s what she’s fighting for."