Big Money Playing an Outsized Role in California Elections

Los Angeles, Oct. 21 – In California’s congressional primaries, bigger wallets give a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice, according to new information released today by CALPIRG Education Fund and Demos. Just 864 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates in the primaries outspent the at least 34,000 small donors who gave less than $200, and 67% percent of all candidate contributions came from donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

“Some argue about which party benefits the most from the new Wild West of campaign finance, or claim that so long as both major candidates in an election are well-financed, our democracy is working the way it should,” said Zach Weinstein, Campaign Organizer with CALPIRG Education Fund. “But that misses the forest for the trees: small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, California’s elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. And big money, often from out-of-district donors, can have an increased effect in primaries because often, spending in the primaries is lower than in the general election. The effect of this “money primary” is that it systematically disadvantages grassroots-fueled candidates who appeal to ordinary voters, but not to big donors.

The CALPIRG Education Fund/Demos analysis examined contributions in congressional primaries in all states except Louisiana (which holds its primary on Election Day), and compared fund-raising from large donors (contributions of $1,000 or more in at least one race) and small donors (who gave $200 or less). Among its findings:

  • Just 864 large donors in California contributed as much as the at least 34,000 small donors combined in its congressional primaries, ranking it 10th. The state with the greatest inequity between small and large donors was Texas, with a single large donors (a self-financed candidate) exceeding all small contributions from a minimum of 8,767 small donors.
  • Nationwide, fewer than 5,500 large donors outspent at least 440,000 small donors.  If that were a single race, it would mean that a candidate who got 10,000 people to give a donation would lose out in the money race to someone who only got 125 contributions.
  • In terms of the percentage of primary funds coming from large donors, California came in 22nd, at 67%%; the top slot was taken by Texas, with 80% of primary contributions coming from large donors.

““Is it any wonder that ordinary voters feel that members of Congress listen to powerful interests more than to their constituents when in fact constituents are providing only a token amount of their campaign funds?” asked Leila Pedersen, program manager of California Common Cause.  “If we want to change the way Congress works we have to change the way that they raise money. Public matching funds and tax credits would reduce the price we all pay for big money’s powerful influence and encourage candidates to campaign in their own backyards,” she added.

There are successful, proven models to empower small donors, so that their voices play a more central role in our democracy, such as providing tax credits and public matching funds for small donations. For example, in New York City’s 2013 city council campaigns, small donors were responsible for 61% of participating candidates’ contributions, when funds from a matching program are included. In 2009, all but two of the 51 winning candidates participated in the small donor program, showing that candidates are able to raise the money they need to win without looking for large-dollar contributions.

“If our primaries just help select the candidate with the most appeal to big donors, our democracy will suffer,” said Weinstein. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets.”

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CALPIRG Education Fund conducts research and public education on behalf of consumers and the public interest. Our research, analysis, reports and outreach serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.