Small donor program reshapes presidential fundraising, new report shows

Study reveals the potential impact of a small donor empowerment program on campaigns in the 2016 presidential election


WASHINGTON, DC – Candidates in the 2016 presidential race would see a dramatic shift in fundraising success under a proposed small donor matching program, according to a study released on Friday by U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Using year-end fundraising data released by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this January, the report examines the impact of a program that matches small contributions with limited public funds for candidates who agree not to accept large donations.

“Super PACs and special interest groups have flooded this year’s presidential race with a record breaking sum of money, drowning out the voices of regular voters,” said Dan Smith, Democracy Campaign Director for U.S. PIRG. “This study shows that we can do something about it. Small donor programs would turn big money politics on its head, putting everyday Americans at the center of campaigns instead of deep-pocketed donors.”

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 participating candidates.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Without a small donor matching system, candidates received 35% of their funds from donors giving $200 and less. Under the proposed system, 70% of total funds would come from small donors who give $200 or less and their corresponding matching funds.
  • Under a small donor matching system, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz would raise significantly more than Right to Rise, the largest Super PAC in the 2016 presidential race.
  • Bernie Sanders is currently raising 64% of his contributions from small donors compared to Hillary Clinton’s 19% through September, but was outraised by nearly $40 million. Under a small donor matching system, Sanders would take a commanding lead over Clinton in fundraising.
  • While Ben Carson and Ted Cruz currently lead the Republican primary in direct fundraising, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio remain close, and Bush raises significantly more when super PAC fundraising is taken into account. Under a small donor matching system, Carson and Cruz would outpace Bush in direct fundraising by a factor of five-to-one and would remain ahead in fundraising even when Right to Rise funds are factored in.
  • Bush’s direct fundraising would increase by only 4% under a small donor matching system, and Chris Christie’s fundraising would increase by only 2%. Both candidates accepted about 90 percent of their contributions from donors giving $1,000 or more.

Seventy-two percent of Americans, a broad, bipartisan majority, support small-donor solutions to overhaul the current campaign-finance system, according to a poll released in December.

Small donor matching programs also 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.

In November, voters in Maine and Seattle passed ballot initiatives to create and strengthen their own small donor empowerment programs. In 2016, voters and lawmakers have an opportunity to enact similar reforms in states and cities across the country.

“Our campaign finance system is broken. Voters know it, candidates know it, and it’s time we do something about it.” said Smith. “This study demonstrates the promise of a small donor empowerment program that would put regular voters in control of our elections.”

Click here for a copy of this month’s “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the 2016 Presidential Election.” You can also find a Quarter 3 copy of the report here.


# # #With public debate around important issues often dominated by special interests pursuing their own narrow agendas, U.S. PIRG Education Fund offers an independent voice that works on behalf of the public interest. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer Americans meaningful opportunities for civic participation.