New Study: Small Donor Matching Program Would Incentivize Shift in 2016 Presidential Fundraising Strategies

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David Rosenfeld

Candidates with more small donors would outpace those relying more on large donors

OSPIRG Foundation

PORTLAND, OR– Candidates in the 2016 presidential race would see a dramatic shift in fundraising success under a proposed small donor public financing system, according to a study released today by OSPIRG Foundation. Using third quarter fundraising data filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) this October, 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.

“Right now, most candidates from both parties are dependent on large donors to fund their campaigns, while voters across the political spectrum are calling for reform,” said Maddie Kusch-Kavanagh, Democracy Campaign Organizer for OSPIRG Foundation. “It doesn’t have to be that way. A small donor matching program would fundamentally change the way our elections work, giving candidates who engage with regular Americans a chance to compete with fundraising by those who choose to rely on big money.”

OSPIRG Foundation’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 limited 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:

  • Under a small donor matching system, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz would raise significantly more directly for their campaign than Right to Rise, the largest Super PAC in the 2016 presidential race.
  • Bernie Sanders is currently raising 80% of his contributions from small donors compared to Hillary Clinton’s 18% through September, but was out raised by nearly two-to-one. Under a small donor matching system, Sanders would take a commanding lead over Clinton in fundraising, bringing in $244 million next to Clinton’s $149 million.
  • While Ben Carson and Ted Cruz currently lead the Republican primary in direct fundraising, Jeb Bush remains a close third, and 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 four-to-one and would remain ahead in fundraising even when super PAC funds are factored in.
  • Chris Christie is the only candidate who would have raised less under a small donor matching system that requires candidates to accept lower contribution limits. Bush’s direct fundraising would increase by only 6% under a small donor matching system.

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.

This September, a poll released by Bloomberg Politics revealed support among 78 percent of Americans for overturning Citizens United. Another poll, released by MAYDAY.US, found that 72 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans support programs that match small donor contributions with public funds.

“Our campaign finance system is broken. Voters know it, candidates know it, and it’s time we do something about it.” said Kusch-Kavanagh. “Voters in Maine and Seattle took matters into their own hands this past November, approving small donor empowerment programs at the ballot box. This study demonstrates the promise of a small donor empowerment program for Presidential elections that would put regular voters back in control of our elections.”

Click here for a third quarter edition of “Boosting the Impact of Small Donors: How Matching Funds Would Reshape the 2016 Presidential Election.” You can also find the previous edition of the report using first and second quarter fundraising data here.

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OSPIRG Foundation, is an independent, non-partisan public interest group. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.