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3 caveats about that New York Times blockbuster on big donors

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The New York Times's interactive feature about the 158 families that have provided almost half of the money in the first stage of the 2016 presidential election is a remarkable achievement in journalism, analysis, and creative data visualization. (Make sure to zoom in on that big green pile of Monopoly pieces in front of the White House.) It is a window onto a world of mostly very conservative — even reactionary — individuals who live in isolation from the rest of the country and who are essentially the gatekeepers of American politics, especially on the Republican side. Nick Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish deserve all the praise and awards that will come their way.

But there are three things to keep in mind before generalizing from this analysis to all of American politics.

1) You'll inevitably notice that almost all these donors — 138 of them — are backing Republicans, and only 20 families are supporting Democrats. But because this is an analysis of presidential donors only, it's distorted a bit by the fact that there are 13 Republican candidates raising money from these donors versus only one Democrat, Hillary Clinton. (Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is probably seeking the same donors, with little success so far, while the other candidates have either raised no money or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, are funded by small donors, as is Ben Carson on the GOP side.) An analysis of the biggest donors to the candidates and Super PACs in the most competitive 2014 Senate races might (or might not) reveal a different picture. And despite the seeming imbalance, if the Democratic nominee loses the general election in 2016, it will not be for lack of money.

2) It's tempting to think of this group as the 1 percent or the 0.01 percent. But almost all political donors who give more than a few hundred dollars to campaigns are in the top 1 percent of earners. To emphasize a point that the article could make even more strongly, this is a very distinct subset of people who are not only extremely rich but also put a huge amount of money into politics and are quite unlike even their peers in wealth. They represent certain industries, such as oil/gas and finance, but even in finance, they are more often hedge funders like Ken Griffin than traditional Wall Streeters. Except for Oracle's Larry Ellison, Silicon Valley is barely present in this story. The reporters note that "instead of working their way up to the executive suite at Goldman Sachs or Exxon, most of these donors ... started hedge funds, or formed private equity and venture capital firms, benefiting from favorable tax treatment of debt and capital gains." Consider them the extractive class, taking resources out of the ground or extracting wealth from existing companies, rarely creating either new wealth or new ideas.

But their very unrepresentativeness creates an opportunity — there are other wealthy people with different experiences and different policy preferences. That includes the liberal donors mentioned in the article, and more like them, but it should also include ordinary people on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, or in the corporate world, the kinds of people who would have been moderate Republicans in another era, who see a social safety net and public investment in infrastructure and education as essential to their workforce and the economy as a whole. In the ideal world, we'd have a campaign finance system in which every citizen could be a meaningful donor; until then, activating those other wealthy people to counter the influence of this narrow group would be a step in the right direction.

3) While this money certainly influences elections, a lot of that pile of red Monopoly pieces has already been wasted. Some of the candidates supported by these donors have already dropped out, including Scott Walker and Rick Perry, while others are the walking dead, a category in which I would include Chris Christie and, frankly, Jeb Bush. All these donors can turn around and put just as much money behind the survivors, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, but it's worth noting how much has gone to candidates who won't make it past the first two primaries. Voters do matter. But money matters, too — in most cases, it determines who is able to run rather than who wins. It's no surprise that all of the Republican candidates hold the very same views as these donors, even if some adopt a slightly different tone. It is the price of entry. All the more reason to think of money in politics in terms of barriers to entry and opportunity to be heard, rather than just in terms of election outcomes.