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Political donors in the US are whiter, wealthier, and more conservative than voters

The more money they give, the more conservative they are.

rich bro
It’s good to be in charge.

Over the past few decades, especially in the wake of a series of Supreme Court decisions under conservative Chief Justice John Roberts (the most notable being Citizens United), the amount of private money flowing into US politics has ballooned. Presidential elections are now multi-billion-dollar affairs. The ability to fundraise fantastic amounts of money is a prerequisite for even minor congressional races.

A growing body of evidence in political science indicates that politicians’ complete dependence on donors really does matter: Better funded candidates tend to win primary elections, candidates tend to prioritize the issues high-income voters care about, and political outcomes tend to reflect the preferences of the very wealthy.

Which raises some questions: Who are these people who fund political campaigns? And what do they want?

The progressive think tank Demos has just released a new paper that delves into the data to shed new light on the demographics and policy preferences of the donor class. The results are grim, if not particularly surprising.


The top line conclusions are simple: Donors are, on average, wealthier, older, whiter, more conservative, and more likely to be male than the general voting population; the larger the donations, the more wealthy/old/white/male donors get. Donors are also more supportive of fiscal austerity and more opposed to President Barack Obama’s agenda than the voting public.

In short, the donor class drags US politics to the right of median public opinion.

That said, let’s look at some specifics, so I can share some charts. Mmm, charts.

1) White men are highly overrepresented among donors, while other demographics are underrepresented. This is from donations in the 2012 presidential race:

donor class demographics (Demos)

2) Millionaires are highly overrepresented among donors as well:

millionaires in the donor class (Demos)

3) Relative to the voting public, the donor class is much less supportive of Obama’s agenda — and the more money they give, the less they support it:

donors and obama's agenda (Demos)

4) This is basically a different way of saying the same thing, but: White males were the donors least likely to support Obama’s agenda (women of color are the most supportive):

donor demos (Demos)

5) The more money a donor gives, the more likely it is that the donor supports fiscal austerity:

donors and austerity (Demos)

6) To bring this back to a subject close to my heart, here’s how donor opinion stacks up on environmental issues, broken out by race. Notably, black donors are the most supportive of environmental policy, by a wide margin:

donors and environmental policy (Demos)

(There are graphs with similar results for reproductive rights, affirmative action, immigration, and other policy issues. Donors of color are more liberal.)

Here’s a bigger chunk on donor climate-change opinion:

Elite donors were less supportive of action on climate change. Among the adult population, 58 percent accept the science of climate change and favor taking action to mitigate it; among elite donors, 46 percent do. While only 21 percent of adults say there isn’t enough evidence to take action on climate change, more than a third of elite donors do (the rest of respondents say “we don’t know enough”). While 43 percent of Republican adults deny the need for action on climate change, 61 percent of elite Republican donors do. More than a quarter of Republicans support immediate action, compared with 10 percent of elite donors. On the Democratic side, both adults and elite donors accept the need for action, though elite donors are somewhat more supportive.

Policy-wise, the richest GOP donors are considerably more conservative than regular Republicans.

7) Interestingly, that opinion gap is much smaller among Democrats. The policy preferences of Democratic donors are roughly in line with those of Democratic voters — the same cannot be said for Republican and Independent donors:

gap between voter and donor opinion (Demos)

Perhaps this indicates that Democratic elites are not quite as out of touch with ordinary voters as everyone likes to say. It certainly indicates that there is enormous overlap between the wealthiest Republicans and the most ideologically extreme.

Money in US elections is a reactionary force

The conclusion to draw from all this is pretty clear. While America is rapidly growing more diverse, the class of Americans who donate to political elections is dominated by, for lack of a better word, incumbents — people who are wealthier, older, whiter, and more conservative than average voters.

This distorts the perspectives of politicians, who spend an enormous amount of time around donors (and potential donors, i.e., wealthy people). It distorts the legislative agenda. And it distorts policy results.

Demos concludes the report with some recommendations of policies that could reduce the influence of money in politics: increased disclosure, public funding of campaigns, and PACs formed for small donors.

But this is the Trump Era, so reform at the federal level is an idle dream for now. (Things are likely to get much worse before they get any better.) The best hope for reformers is in states like California and Massachusetts. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.

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