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How big is the gap between the donor class and ordinary Americans? Bigger than you think.

- December 15, 2016

Money’s influence is a perennial concern in American politics. And with President-elect Donald Trump filling up his potential cabinet with millionaires, billionaires and his campaign donors, the discussion has become more prominent.

A central question is whether donors, as a result of their financial support of politicians, exert disproportionate influence over public policy. Political scientists’ research has drawn differing conclusions.

Some suggest that donors are able to persuade elected officials to support the positions they favor. Other studies suggest that while the wealthy might be more influential than middle-class or low-income Americans, money is just one source of power, with higher levels of activism and participation among the affluent also helping them shape government policy.

Who’s in the donor class? 

A first step in determining how powerful donors might be is establishing who they are and what they want from government.

Our new report for the public policy organization Demos, “Whose Voice, Whose Choice?, details the composition of the “donor class.” We analyze survey data that provides new insight into their political beliefs. In contrast to a diversifying U.S. population, donors are overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. They also tend to hold more consistently ideological political views than average Americans, particularly on the Republican side.

We rely primarily on two data sources to examine political donors. First, we combine data on donors from the Federal Election Commission from the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections with data from the firm Catalist. This allows us to paint a demographic portrait of the donor class.

We also use survey data from the large, nationally representative samples in the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES), surveys conducted from 2008 to 2014. Those surveys provide information about the political views of donors. (Sampling and weighting details are in the report.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that donors aren’t at all descriptively representative of the general population. Donors — especially the largest ones — are disproportionately wealthy, white, and male. While white men make up 35 percent of the population, they comprise 45 percent of donors; they also contribute 57 percent of all political donations.

In 2016, 95 percent of Trump’s donors were white, and 64 percent were white men. In contrast, 33 percent of Clinton’s donors were white men.

We also found that although about 3 percent of Americans are millionaires, 17 percent of donors were. Millionaires provided an even larger share of contributions. For example, 42 percent of Clinton’s money, and 27 percent of Trump’s money, came from millionaires.

What about donors’ political attitudes?

People who donate to campaigns are more ideological, and thus tend to have more consistently ideological preferences than people who don’t give money to politicians.

Consider the graph below. Here, we present the percentage of donors and non-donors who supported parts of the Obama legislative agenda, such as the 2009 stimulus package and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. We split the data up by the respondent’s party affiliation.

MCELWEE MonkeyCageDonors2.1

Across the board, we find that donors as a group are more partisan than non-donors who share their party affiliation. For example, Democratic donors were 10 percentage points more supportive of the 2009 stimulus package than were non-donors, although both groups were supportive of the key Obama administration effort. Across all the issues, Democratic donors were on average 7 percentage points more likely to take the liberal position than non-donors.

The gaps were even larger for Republicans. The average gap between donors and non-donors was 23 percentage points. For example, 55 percent of Republicans who didn’t donate supported the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), but just 26 percent of Republican donors did. Republican donors were more consistently opposed to the Obama agenda than Republican non-donors.

These findings are consistent with a story of asymmetric polarization, in which Republican elites have moved further to the right than Democratic elites have moved to the left.

Independent donors too were far more likely to oppose Obama’s agenda than non-donors who identify as independents.

Even so, race and gender still play an important role in determining attitudes within the donor class, as we have found previously among the wealthy. Women of color who donate, for instance, are far more liberal than white male donors. Thirty-eight percent of white male donors supported the Affordable Care Act, while 65 percent of women of color who are donors supported it. Similarly, only 38 percent of white male donors supported the fiscal stimulus of 2009, but 63 percent of women of color who are donors supported it. The same divisions that exist in the population at large are evident among donors.

Finally, what about the largest donors, those giving more than $5,000? These individuals, who we call “elite donors,” represent an especially conservative slice of the public.

As the chart below shows, just 44 percent of elite donors support the Affordable Care Act, compared to 53 percent of the general public (this pools together several years’ worth of data, giving us a more consistent understanding of attitudes). While this might seem to be a small gap, it is statistically significant and represents the difference between majority support and majority opposition.

MCELWEE MonkeyCageDonors4.1

We also find elite donors to be especially supportive of cuts to domestic spending, and less supportive of action to fight climate change than the U.S. public. Finally, while recent headlines like, “GOP must embrace pro-immigration policy, big donors say” would suggest that large donors are more liberal on the issue of immigration, we find no evidence for this thesis. Indeed, elite donors take fairly conservative positions on immigration issues.

As the transition to the Trump administration continues, the debate over the influence of money in politics will only grow louder. But to the extent that Republican donors are placed in positions to shape government policy, our data suggest that they will be inclined to try to push it in a distinctly conservative direction.

Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos. Find him on Twitter @SeanMcElwee. 

Jesse Rhodes is associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Find him on Twitter @JesseRhodesPS. 

Brian Schaffner is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Find him on Twitter @b_schaffner.