Big Money Dominates Chicago Mayoral Election

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Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Majority of Money Contributed from Outside Chicago

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Chicago –Thicker wallets give big donors an outsized voice in this year’s mayoral election, according to a new report released by Illinois PIRG Education Fund one week before Election Day. Contributions greater than $1,000 account for more than 86% of the money contributed to the five Chicago mayoral candidates, while less than 2% of the money contributed comes from contributions of less than $150.  

“Our democracy is built on the principle of one person, one vote,” said Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director Abe Scarr. “But with campaign contributions lifted in the mayoral election, small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of large donors.”

At the same time, a slight majority — 52% — of money contributed, comes from donors living outside Chicago. The bigger the contribution, the more likely that it came from a donor outside of Chicago: 60% of the money contributed by donors giving $25,000 or more, 80% of the money contributed by donors giving $80,000 or more. In contrast, for contributions between $150 and $300, 72% of the money contributed comes from donors from Chicago.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions undermining campaign finance rules, most notably Citizens United v FEC, Illinois elections have become increasingly flooded by large donations. This fall’s Governor’s race was the most expensive in history, with Bruce Rauner contributing more than thirty-six million dollars to his own campaign. The Chicago mayoral election has been notable for Rahm Emanuel’s fundraising hauls, which easily dwarf his competitors combined fundraising totals.

Voters in Chicago have the rare opportunity to weigh in on possible solutions to the problem of big money in elections by voting on an advisory ballot question on small donor campaign finance solutions. All mayoral candidates have endorsed the question. Today is a day of action for Fair Elections Illinois, a campaign representing over a dozen local organizations in support of the question.

“This report demonstrates how Chicago politics is being negatively influenced by special interests and mega donors,” said Brian Gladstein, Director of Programs and Strategy for Common Cause Illinois. “In response, we need a small donor matching campaign finance system to amplify the voices of everyday Chicagoans. We created the Fair Elections campaign to allow a more diverse pool of candidates to run for office and to win based on the issues they support rather than the big donors they can court.” 

The Illinois PIRG Education Fund analysis examined contributions to the five mayoral candidates between 2011 and December 31st, 2014, the end of the last quarterly report. A significant amount of money has been contributed since then, which Illinois PIRG Education Fund will analyze once the campaigns and campaign reports are completed.

The report compared the percentage of all money contributed from small and large donors, the percentage of contributions from small and large donors, the number of large donors whose contributions match contributions by all small donors combined, and the percentage of money coming from within and without Chicago.

Among its findings:

  • While at least 23% of contributors to the five mayoral candidates gave under $150, their contributions amount to less than 2% of all money contributed.
  • Contributions of more than $1,000 amount to more than 86% of all money contributed.
  • Rahm Emanuel has the lowest percentage of contributions coming from small donors: 0.87%
  • Taking out Emanuel’s fundraising, money from small donors accounts for less than 9% of contributions to the other four candidates.
  • The top two donors together gave more money than all small donors combined – of which there are at least 1,601.
  • A slight majority, 52%, of all money contributed came from out of district contributors.
  • The bigger the contribution, the more likely that it came from a donor outside of Chicago: 60% of the money contributed by donors giving $25,000 or more, 80% of the money contributed by donors giving $80,000 or more.

“If our elections simply serve to select the candidate with the most appeal to a narrow set of big donors, our democracy suffers,” said Scarr. “Mega-donors shouldn’t get louder voices by virtue of their deeper pockets.”

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.