With Julián Castro’s exit from the Democratic presidential primary, only one candidate who has raised half of their funds from donors who are women remains in the race.
It appears to be a sign that male donors still hold considerably more influence when it comes to money in politics, and that their preferred candidates — who tend to look like them — are lasting the longest in the field.
Castro received 57 percent of his campaign contributions from women, making him and Marianne Williamson (70 percent) the candidates with the highest proportions of women donors. Castro was followed by Beto O’Rourke, who dropped out in November 2019, at 54 percent. Then came Kamala Harris at 52 percent (she pulled out in December), while Kirsten Gillibrand followed at 52 percent before she suspended her campaign in August. Elizabeth Warren, whom Castro has officially endorsed, is now the only competitive candidate left who has comparable support from women (51 percent) and men, according to a recent analysis of itemized contributions through the third fundraising quarter. Though women are donating the most to Bernie Sanders overall, most of the Vermont senator’s money still comes from male donors.
The Center for Responsive Politics, which has been tracking 2020 contributions, has found that women are giving as frequently as men to Democratic presidential candidates — and for the first time, giving more to multiple candidates. However, male donors still contribute more money on average. For every itemized dollar going to a presidential candidate, about 57 cents comes from a man and 43 cents from a woman. That matters when the gender breakdown of who’s contributing to what candidate tends to be skewed.
In the US political system, fundraising signals a candidate’s electability and viability, especially in primaries. The gender fundraising gap means that women, especially women of color — as both candidates and donors — often do not have the same opportunities to become competitive contenders or to have their preferred candidates viewed as particularly viable. In more than 90 percent of House elections, the candidates who spent the most campaign cash were elected to office. Meanwhile, no winning presidential candidate has ever received even half of their contributions from women. A majority support from men has historically been a key feature for successful presidential campaigns — and it’s perhaps time to address that influence.
Women and male donors, by the numbers
Women are not a monolithic fundraising bloc. They comprise a diverse and fluid group, and dollar amounts from women vary by candidate, largely because women often donate to more than one candidate. With multiple candidates embracing issues that Democratic women prioritize — like health care reform, gun regulations, income inequality, race relations, and education — donor circles are encouraging women to spread their money around. Even so, almost all of the women and candidates of color in the Democratic presidential primary received about half of their funds from women donors.
But who women donors favor tells only part of the story. These numbers also tell the story of which candidates men choose to support. Three out of four of the frontrunners — Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden — are men, all of whom receive far more campaign cash from men than they do women. Men are simply giving more, and giving more to the candidates who are men.
Part of that has to do with the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 — since then, white men make up the vast majority of political megadonors. Looking at the top 100 political spenders lists of federal elections, women don’t make the cut as often as men do, and donors of color rarely show up as political megadonors.
Sanders is the outlier white male candidate with lots of small donors — 58 percent of his fundraising comes from small individual contributions. As a whole, such donors are more representative of the gender, class, and race demographics of diverse voting constituencies — and 41 percent of Sanders’s small donors are women.
Women and people of color have historically been politically active in a myriad of ways outside of the campaign finance system, but their financial contributions are changing, too. Loose coalitions of women-centric donor circles focused on bringing more women to elected office have grown across the country in response to the 2016 elections. And a new cluster has formed of minority-focused super PACs and bundlers focused on financially backing more candidates of color. It is important to note, though, that women and voters of color vote and donate for reasons beyond shared gender and racial identities with candidates. Like all voting blocs, they have an array of priorities that inform diverse policy perspectives through many identity factors, and voter support extends beyond representation.
Women are donating more now than ever. It could change our political future.
Ultimately, electing a woman or a candidate of color is about more than who donates to whom. Previous research has found that gender parity in fundraising still does not translate to equal chances of electoral success. By looking at electoral fates for women and people of color in similar political positions and situations as white men, diverse groups of candidates may not achieve the same levels of success with the same levels of campaign investments because of the systemic racism and sexism that “gatekeeps” from the start who is capable of running for office.
In other words, women and people of color may require more resources to reach the same goals as candidates who are white and candidates who are male. And it may require women donors and donors of color to kick in more money to garner the same amount of buzz and “bang for their buck” for their preferred candidates.
Women are on track to donate more money this election cycle than ever before, and this trend is only rising. If Democratic women remain this engaged and financially active going into 2020 and beyond — and all signs suggest they could, quite possibly, close the gender fundraising gap in one of the next elections — new seats at the table may open in our political process.
Correction: Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the presidential primary in November 2019, not 2018.
Grace Haley is a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the site OpenSecrets.org in Washington, DC. Her work studies the intersections of identity and campaign finance, focusing on how women navigate politics as donors, voters, candidates, and lawmakers.