New study shows potential impact of a small donor matching program on 2016 presidential race

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WASHINGTON, DC – Candidates in the 2016 presidential race would see a dramatic shift in their fundraising, and have a powerful incentive to focus more on small donors under a proposed small donor public financing system, according to a study released on Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (U.S. PIRG). Using candidate filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) through July, “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the 2016 Presidential Election” examines the impact of a program that matches small contributions with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to accept large donations. 

“Right now, the vast majority of funds raised in this election are coming from big donors writing checks exponentially larger than most Americans can afford,” said Dan Smith, Democracy Program Director for U.S. PIRG Education Fund and author of the study. “It doesn’t have to be that way. A small donor matching system would put democracy back in the hands of ordinary Americans.”

Candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Ben Carson see a dramatic shift in fundraising outcomes under a small donor matching system.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s study examines the impact of a small donor matching system similar to those proposed in the Government by the People Act (H.R. 20) and the Fair Elections Now Act (S. 1538). Both of these bills propose a program that would match small contributions with public funds at a rate of six-to-one or more, and establish lower maximum contribution limits for candidates who volunteer to participate and demonstrate viability by meeting qualifying thresholds for small donor fundraising.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Without a small donor matching system, candidates received 33 percent of their funds from donors giving less than $200. Under the proposed system, 74 percent of the total funds would come from small donors and their corresponding matching funds.
  • Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has raised 77 percent of his contributions from small donors compared to former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s 18 percent, but Clinton is currently outraising Sanders by more than three to one. With a small donor matching system, Sanders would close the gap significantly, trailing Clinton in fundraising by just 7 percent.
  • Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush raised $11 million directly from his campaign committee, about a tenth of the total raised by his Right to Rise Super PAC. While Bush’s direct fundraising is on par with that of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, only three percent of his contributions come from small donors, and a matching system would give Cruz, Paul, Rubio, and Carson a commanding lead.
  • Bush is the only candidate who would have raised less money directly for his campaign under a small donor matching system that requires candidates to accept lower contribution limits.
  • Under a small donor matching system, Sanders and Clinton would raise nearly as much as Right to Rise, the largest Super PAC in the 2016 presidential race.
  • Clinton, Bush, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley raised the largest share of their funds from donors giving $2,700, the maximum federal contribution limit. A small donor matching system would provide a powerful incentive to focus more of their efforts on small donors.

Small donor matching programs have a track record of success. New York City’s program allowed participating candidates in the 2013 city council race to raise 61 percent of their contributions from small donations and matching funds. That year, 92 percent of candidates running in the primary participated in the program.

 “With Washington insiders and wealthy donors dominating our democracy, everyday Americans are yearning for a voice again in our government,” said Congressman John Sarbanes (MD), the author of the Government by the People Act. “There’s no question that by creating a small-donor matching system, we can give candidates a viable way to fund their campaigns, and most importantly, give ordinary people more power in our democracy”

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that 85 percent of Americans think the current system for funding campaigns needs ‘fundamental changes’ or that ‘we need to totally rebuild it.’

“Americans of all political stripes are ready for reform. It’s time that we start talking about concrete solutions for fighting big money in politics like amplifying the voices of small donors,” said Smith. “This study demonstrates the promise of a small donor empowerment program that would put regular voters back in control of our elections.”

U.S. PIRG recently joined 12 other leading government reform organizations to release a comprehensive policy agenda to curb the impact of big money in our elections that includes small donor matching as a key recommendation. Click here to see the “Fighting Big Money, Empowering People Agenda.”


Click here for a copy of “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the 2016 Presidential Election.”