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Superdonors are not pulling us rightward

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Are the super-wealthy steering US politics to the right? That's certainly the subtext in today's beautiful New York Times piece by Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish. As the piece notes:

The families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right, contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs.

The piece further suggests that public opinion has been moving away from the world these superdonors inhabit. People want to mitigate economic inequalities, protect the social safety net, and raise taxes on the wealthy. And the country as a whole has become more demographically diverse in recent decades. The superdonors, the article suggests, act as a countervailing force on these trends, giving a handful of conservative, intensely wealthy, white families the ability to steer the political dialogue back to the right by backing Republican candidates.

It's certainly a compelling argument. But that's not what's happening.

The point to remember here is that this analysis is focusing on those who have already donated in the 2016 race. More people have donated to Republican candidates because there's much more of a contest on that side. There are some 15 candidates in the GOP field, including several senators and governors, plus some exciting nontraditional candidates like Trump, Fiorina, and Carson who have been leading in recent polls. It's a very competitive field and it's really not obvious whom the nominee will be. It makes perfect sense to donate in the Republican race.

By contrast, the Democratic contest is a snooze. Hillary Clinton is highly likely to be named the nominee next summer. Bernie Sanders is running a spirited campaign and may do well in some of the early contests next year, but the odds are he won't get close to the nomination. Joe Biden is doing ... something ... but not running a traditional race. There are actually super-wealthy Democratic donors, but there's little value in them entering the contest at this point, since there just isn't much of a contest to enter.

Indeed, studies of the ideological leanings of superdonors suggest they come from all across the ideological spectrum. The field of superdonors just looks more Republican right now because they have a better reason to be donating in the 2016 cycle.

Now, there might be an interesting causal question here. Are Republican donors getting involved because there are so many Republican presidential candidates, or are there so many Republican candidates because the donors are involved? These conservative superdonors may well be helping to create the competitive environment by backing candidates who would have had a hard time ginning up support in earlier cycles.

That's potentially interesting, and it's possible both things are happening at the same time. But what's not happening here is the superdonors skewing American politics rightward. The only reason the 2016 cycle's superdonors look Republican is because that's where the action is.

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