How the Skewed Demographics of the Donor Class Pull Our Politics to the Right

Money in politics isn’t just a good government issue.

Big donors to political campaigns Sheldon Adelson, Tom Steyer, and David H. Koch.
Big donors to political campaigns Sheldon Adelson, Tom Steyer, and David H. Koch.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Rick Wilking/Reuters, Gary Cameron/Reuters, and Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

The prospect of big donors warping the political system loomed large in the 2016 election. On the left, Bernie Sanders warned of an “oligarchic society” in which big donors dictated the political agenda. On the right, Donald Trump mocked his opponents as “puppets” of the Koch brothers. Now that Trump is filling his administration with an unprecedented number of donors, their influence over politics is even more deserving of study. Yet so far there has been no systematic research into the demographic makeup and political views of the wealthiest donors. Who are they? What are their politics?

Our research suggests the donor class is a stratified group that does not represent the diversity of America and is politically to the right of the general population. Trump’s donors were incredibly white and extremely male: 95 percent were white, and 64 percent were white men. Hillary Clinton, who had more gender diversity among her donors, still had an overwhelmingly white donor pool. Though money in politics is normally considered to be an issue tied to class (and it is!) our new report, Whose Voice, Whose Choice?, shows that the influence of a white, wealthy, and male donor class could impede progress on gender and racial equity.

Female donors lean Democratic. By matching Federal Election Commission data with a database maintained by Catalist (a progressive data vendor), we can explore the demographics of donors. In the 2012 presidential election, among donors who gave more than $200 (the threshold for reporting), women preferred Obama 64 percent to 36 percent, while men preferred Romney and the other Republicans 54 percent to 45 percent. Donors of color also leaned Democratic, 76 percent to 24 percent.

Examining all of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study surveys between 2008 and 2014 gives us an even broader picture of donors at all levels. We find that while women of color make up 13 percent of the adult population, they make up 9 percent of donors and 6 percent of money contributed. White men, on the other hand, make up 35 percent of the adult population, but 57 percent of the money contributed comes from white men.

This underrepresentation could have an important impact on policy, since donors who are women of color are more progressive on many key issues than white male donors. Using CCES data across multiple years, we were able to examine the policy preferences of donors. Many commentators argue that on issues related to abortion, donors tend to be socially cosmopolitan. For instance, it’s often pointed out that Charles and David Koch, Republican megadonors, are supportive of abortion rights (though it has never stopped them from contributing to fiercely anti-choice candidates and organizations). We find significant differences between white male donors and female donors, particularly women of color. Sixty-one percent of donors who are women of color, and 68 percent of black women donors, agree the abortion should always be available as a matter of choice, compared with only 45 percent of white male donors.

On other issues related to reproductive justice, white male donors are again more conservative. When reproductive justice is pitted against the donor classes’ more economically conservative agenda, donors side with corporate interests. White male donors support banning the use of funds authorized or appropriated by federal law for any abortion (similar to the Hyde amendment) and allowing employers to decline coverage of abortion in insurance plans. White male donors also support letting employers and insurers “refuse to cover birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs.” Female donors oppose all three of these proposals.

But reproductive choice is not the only policy that disproportionately affects women. Austerity policies have important consequences for women, particularly women of color. A recent study finds that women are more likely than men to face poverty after having children because of the fraying social safety net. The CCES survey has consistently given choice a generic deficit reduction question that asks respondents whether they would prefer to reduce the deficit with defense spending cuts, domestic spending cuts, or tax increases. White male donors were more supportive of domestic spending cuts than defense spending cuts (50 percent to 33 percent, with the rest favoring tax increases), while female donors preferred defense spending cuts.

But how do donors compare, ideologically speaking, with the nondonor public? Examining both budget-related questions and the Obama agenda, we find that Republican donors are far more consistently conservative than Republican nondonors, while Democratic donors are only somewhat more consistently liberal than Democratic nondonors. Further, while independent nondonors are in the center, independent donors skew to the right (they have preferences on the Obama agenda similar to Republican nondonors). Across the five Obama-agenda issues (climate change, children’s health care, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and the stimulus package) Democratic donors who gave more than $1,000 were on average 7 percentage points more likely to take the liberal position than nondonors. That compares to an average difference of 23 points among Republicans and 33 points among independents, both of whose big donors fell to the right of nondonors.

Take, for example, the stimulus package. Among nondonors, 22 percent of Republicans supported it, as well as 50 percent of independents and 80 percent of Democrats. Among donors giving more than $1,000, 4 percent of Republicans supported the stimulus package, compared with 23 percent of Independents and 90 percent of Democrats. Though it’s true Democratic donors are slightly to the left of rank-and-file Democrats, the composition of the donor class and the extreme right-wing views of GOP donors pull the political system to the right. Thus, on net, donors, and particularly big donors, were much less supportive of Obama’s agenda. While 54 percent of nondonors supported the stimulus package, 35 percent of donors giving $1,000 or more did. Much like on other issues, polarization is asymmetric.

The implications of the white male skew of the donor class can also be seen in the Obama agenda. While 39 percent of white male donors supported the stimulus package, 63 percent of donors who were women of color supported it. While donors who were women of color supported all five policies in the Obama agenda, white men supported only the expansion of the State Child’s Health Insurance Program and Dodd-Frank but rejected a cap-and-trade program (Waxman-Markey), the stimulus package, and the Affordable Care Act.

Money in politics tends to be thought of as a good government issue, something distinct from racial justice and gender equity. Part of this is because donors do not report their races and genders when contributing to campaigns. But our work suggests that the rise of big money in politics could hamper progress on race and gender equity. Research by political scientist Michael Barber shows that politicians are more responsive to the preferences of donors than nondonors, even nondonors who voted for them. Other research finds that donors who don’t live in representatives’ districts receive more representation than nondonor constituents. Candidates of color struggle to raise money, and business interests tend to donate more heavily to white candidates. Powerful lobbies such as the private prison industry use their influence to support policies that deepen mass incarceration, disproportionately affecting black and brown people. The overwhelmingly white male skew of the donor class is distorting policy. Money-in-politics organizations tend to be disproportionately white and tend to frame their work around good governance and preventing corruption. Instead, they should incorporate race and gender equity into their work and favor policies such as public financing that empower both candidates and donors of color.