As I cleanse my email feed every morning , deleting multiple frantic requests for just $2/$5/$20 or whatever, I’m reminded about my original, oh-so-naive belief that small-dollar fundraising would improve governance by removing the influence of big-dollar donors…
I was thrilled when Howard Dean first demonstrated that the internet could be employed to encourage small donations. When Obama raised enormous sums in small increments, I thought the days of depending on political fat cats was over–and since no candidate could be “bought” for these small contributions, I counted this as a win for democracy.
Let’s just say it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.
Small dollar fundraising did indeed reduce political reliance on the “usual suspects”–the big money donors. Unfortunately, however, this approach to fundraising produces different–but equally troubling– negative consequences, and those negatives go far beyond the annoying assaults on our inboxes.
In a recent column for the New York Times, Thomas Edsall consulted the research–and reported on the gloomy conclusions that the research supports.
Increasing the share of campaign pledges from modest donors has long been a goal of campaign-finance reformers, but it turns out that small donors hold far more ideologically extreme views than those of the average voter.
In their 2022 paper, “Small Campaign Donors,” four economists — Laurent Bouton, Julia Cagé, Edgard Dewitte and Vincent Pons — document the striking increase in low-dollar ($200 or less) campaign contributions in recent years. (Very recently, in part because Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and in part because Joe Biden has not been able to raise voter enthusiasm, low-dollar contributions have declined, although they remain a crucial source of cash for candidates.)
Bouton and his colleagues found that the total number of individual donations grew from 5.2 million in 2006 to 195.0 million in 2020. Over the same period, the average size of contributions fell from $292.10 to $59.70.
Edsall also quoted a 2019 article, “Small-Donor-Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization.” That article warned about the consequences of increasing dependence on small donations, due to the fact that low-dollar donors tend to be “considerably more ideologically extreme than the average American.”
This is one of the most robust empirical findings in the campaign-finance literature, though it is not widely known. The ideological profile for individual donors is bimodal, with most donors clumped at the “very liberal” or “very conservative” poles and many fewer donors in the center, while the ideological profile of other Americans is not bimodal and features strong centrist representation.
It turns out that rising dependency on small-dollar donors has been one of the major reasons we’ve seen a decline in the strength of political parties–and the inability of party leaders, especially but not exclusively in the GOP, to control their respective crazies.
Political parties have been steadily losing the power to shape the election process to super PACs, independent expenditure organizations and individual donors. This shift has proved, in turn, to be a major factor in driving polarization, as the newly ascendant sources of campaign contributions push politicians to extremes on the left and on the right.
Edsall writes that Citizens United “was a crucial factor in shaping the ideological commitments of elected officials and their challengers.” It ushered in our era of independent expenditures and of dark money, leaching power that used to be exercised by the political parties.
The small donors who contribute to Trump are also those who fund the looney-tunes.
Edsall reports that Marjorie Taylor Greene raised $12,546,634, with 68.32 percent coming from small donors; Matt Gaetz raised $6,384,832, of which 62.24 percent came from small donors; and Jim Jordan raised $13,975,653, of which 58.05 percent came from small donors. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and AOC appealed most to small donors (although I would note that Sanders and AOC are both sane and hard-working legislators–something that certainly can’t be said about Greene, Gaetz and Jordan.)
Donations of $200 or less made up 69 percent of the individual contributions to Trump’s campaign.
And speaking of Citizens United, in its wake, spending by ideological and single-issue independent expenditure organizations grew from $21.8 million in 2006 to $66 million in 2016. During that same time-period, spending by political parties fell from 24 percent of the total to 16.2 percent, and the influence of dark money grew significantly.
There’s much more in Edsall’s column, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety. The bottom line is that we now have a system that incentivizes extremism. Social media and the Internet enable lunatics to self-finance; they don’t worry that Fortune 500 companies will stop giving them money, because 30 percent of the population wants insanity and is willing to fund the politicians who give it to them.
I have no clue what we do about this, but a more politically savvy Supreme Court would help….