Governor’s Race Dominated by Big Money

Large donors overwhelm contributions of ordinary citizens

CALPIRG Education Fund

Sacramento, Oct. 30th – Just days away from California’s gubernatorial election, a new analysis of contributions to the two candidates who qualified for the general election by CALPIRG Education Fund shows that bigger wallets are giving a small set of mega-donors an outsized voice. In total, there were at least 714 small donors who gave less than $200, compared to 1,015 donors who gave $1,000 or more, and 98% of all candidate contributions came from those donors giving chunks of $1,000 or more.

“This says far less about either candidate than it says about our broken campaign finance system,” said Zach Weinstein, Democracy Organizer with CALPIRG Education Fund. “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 federal campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, California’s elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. Today’s analysis shows that matters are no different in California’s gubernatorial election, especially with the extremely high limits on campaign contributions in California statewide elections, which allow individuals to contribute up $27,200 in both the primary and general elections.

“The current campaign finance framework certainly doesn’t seem to encourage widespread citizen participation, and demonstrates that if you want to run for governor you need a great deal of personal wealth or you need to appeal to donors capable of writing 20 or 50 thousand dollar checks,” continued Weinstein.

The CALPIRG Education Fund analysis examined contributions to the two general election candidates since the beginning of 2014, 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 2 large donors in California contributed as much as the at least 714 small donors combined in the gubernatorial race.
  • California candidates for governor had 98% of their contributions come from large donors who gave $1,000 or more.
  • The 1,015 donors who gave 98% of contributions represent only .00003% of California residents.

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.

“Mega-donors shouldn’t get to drown out the rest of our voices by virtue of having deeper pockets,” said Weinstein. “Our democracy works best when regular Californians are just as important to our politicians as big campaign spenders.”

A NOTE ON METHODOLOGY: All public filings on campaign contributions are available here. The findings included numbers from the public list of contributions received by each campaign committee committee, as well as unitemized contributions found in the electronic filings of each campaign committee. The contributions of all contributors who gave more than once to one or both candidates were combined to avoid double counting individuals or businesses. Contributions from PACs and state party committees were not included.


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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.