In Aldermanic Races Fueled by Big Money, Top Fundraiser Wins 93% of the Time

Media Contacts
Abe Scarr

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

Small Donor Reform Would Make Grassroots Candidates More Competitive

Illinois PIRG Education Fund

Chicago – In the Chicago aldermanic races the candidate with the most money almost always wins, small donors represent only a small portion of candidates’ campaign cash, and small donor campaign finance reform would shake up elections according to a new report from Illinois PIRG Education Fund. The report analyzes campaign contributions going to top candidates in all 50 wards in the 2015 aldermanic elections.

Amongst its findings are that candidates with a fundraising advantage won a majority or plurality 93 percent of the time in the February municipal election and that only 11 percent of money contributed to candidates came from donors giving less than $150.

“If campaigns were financed by constituents giving relatively small and relatively equal amounts to the candidate of their choice, the fact that fundraising success leads to electoral success would not be a problem,” said Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director Abe Scarr, “but most modern campaigns are fueled by a small number of big donors giving at levels average Illinois residents cannot afford.”

The competition for contributions from big donors is often referred to as the “money primary” as it can filter out otherwise worthy candidates who lack access to or whose positions don’t appeal to big donors.

 “Our elections should be contests of who has the best ideas and qualifications to represent their constituents, not who best appeals to a small number big donors,” continued Scarr. “As our report shows, small donor campaign finance reform would increase competition and empower candidates running campaigns fueled  by small donors.”

Because complete campaign finance information is not available past the end of 2014, the report pieces together reports from last year with what partial reporting is available for contributions made in 2015. 

Other report findings include:

  • Candidates with a larger fundraising advantage were more likely to win outright than face a runoff.
  • Incumbents have a significant fundraising advantage, out-fundraising their closest challengers by almost $7 million by the February election.
  • All but one of the candidates with a fundraising advantage in the municipal election has a fundraising advantage going in to the runoffs. Mostly those advantages have increased.
  • If Chicago were to adopt a small donor matching system, candidates relying on small donors would be more competitive, and aldermanic elections would be more competitive in general.

Chicago voters weighed in on whether or not Chicago should adopt a small donor public financing system by voting on an advisory referendum in February. Chicago voters endorsed the proposal four to one.

“As this study demonstrates, big money is dominating not only our national elections but our local elections as well,” said Brian Gladstein, Director of Programs and Strategy for Common Cause Illinois. “Our local officials should be elected based on the issues that matter most to voters not by who can raise the most big money. This is why Common Cause Illinois has launched the Fair Elections campaign to bring a small donor public financing program to the City of Chicago to increase candidate diversity, increase political participation, and limit big money in elections.”

The report examines four aldermanic races where a challenger had a significant small donor base, estimating the potential impact a small donor campaign financing program would have on the race if both challenger and incumbent participated in the program.  In one of the four races the challenger would go from having an $180,000 fundraising disadvantage to having a $40,000 advantage. In two races, a smaller fundraising gap between the top two candidates may have produced a runoff rather than an outright winner, and in the final race, an incumbent increased his fundraising advantage because of his large base of small donors.

“This important report reemphasizes the need to reform our campaign finance system by adopting a Small Donor Matching System in the City of Chicago that makes it easier for our Elected Officials to consider the interests of all of us in decision making, rather than focusing unduly on the interests of large campaign donations from the wealthiest and most powerful sections of society,” said David Melton, Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The report recommends that the City of Chicago a Cook County pursue small donor campaign finance reform, and that the state require more frequent and timely campaign finance reporting.