Our elections should be driven by the interests of regular Americans, not the small set of people who can afford to give large campaign contributions. While wealthy donors have historically had an outsized influence on our politics, for the 2020 elections, small donors are taking the lead.
A combination of technological and cultural changes have made made it possible for candidates for president to run for office while relying primarily on small donor money.
U.S. PIRG analyzed the campaign finance reports from 2020 candidates. We found that small donations, and the people who provide them, have a significant voice in the presidential race.
-Donations less than $200 are the single largest source of funding for 2020 presidential candidates.
-Small donations account for more than twice as much money as PACs and other political committees.
-There is almost $100,000,000 more small donor dollars in the 2020 election than there were at the same point in the 2016 cycle.
-Six candidates have raised more than 50% of their funds from small donations. (Sanders, Warren, Yang, O’Rourke, Castro and Williamson)
-Six candidates have raised more than $10 million from small donations. (Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Harris, Biden, Trump)
For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. While big money still has disproportionate influence, the data from the 2020 candidates for the first time show that there is a credible alternative. Small dollar donors can power our elections.
A big money primary
Running for office has never been more expensive. The 2016 federal election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history. It cost almost $6.5 billion across all races. As a result, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they often need to court contributions from megadonors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races.
This gives a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office well before anyone gets a chance to cast a ballot.
That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work. Candidates should be elected because of the quality of their ideas and their ability to garner public support, not their ability to raise big money.
U.S. PIRG is working to reduce the influence of big money by encouraging the active participation of small donors in our elections. That way candidates are accountable to, and dependent on, the people—not moneyed interests.
-All data is from the Federal Election Commission October quarterly reports.
-The reports can be found at https://docquery.fec.gov/pres/2019/Q3/.
-This report defines small contributions as contributions smaller than $200.
-A list of all of the candidates and their totals is available upon request.