They’d fill fewer than half the seats at a typical football stadium in the U.S., yet 31,385 individuals contributed 28 percent of the $6 billion spent on the 2012 election.
This elite group of donors -- just .01 percent of the U.S. population -- made up a greater proportion of federal political contributions than in any campaign season since at least 1998, according to a report on “the 1 percent of the 1 percent” released today by the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation. The nonprofit group advocates for campaign-finance transparency.
Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire chairman of casino company Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS:US), and his wife, Miriam, together contributed almost $100 million to Republican candidates and committees, making them the top donors. The leading giver among Democratic donors was Fred Eychaner, chief executive officer of Newsweb Corp., a Chicago-based media company. He gave about $14 million. The most common employer of those in the group was Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS:US), the report found.
“We pretty well knew that political giving is quite unequal in this country, but when you look at all of the data, it really pops out just how concentrated it is,” said Lee Drutman, the report’s author. “As the amount of money it takes to run for office continues to increase, the need to raise money from the elite becomes that much more important.”
The report’s findings emphasize the increasing influence of wealthy donors, who can contribute unlimited sums to super-political action committees.
Those super-PACs, in turn, buy television advertisements and make other expenditures supporting their preferred politicians, circumventing contribution limits to candidates and other kinds of political committees. This method of giving sprang up after 2010 court rulings and federal policy changes.
Left out of the report because of a lack of data is information about who funds the nonprofit groups that often participate in politics. Those “social welfare” groups reported to the Federal Election Commission that they spent $300 million on campaigns last year. They can keep their donors secret and don’t have to disclose political spending that falls outside the FEC’s narrow reporting requirements.
The median contribution from the subset of elite donors that Sunlight analyzed was $26,584, according to the report, which is more than half of the median family income in the U.S.
Entry to “elite” status required donations equaling $12,950, more than ever before, the report says. Some donors went well beyond that, with the top 10 percent of the 31,385 donors contributing more than half of the group’s almost $1.7 billion investment.
“A tiny sliver of Americans who can afford to give tens of thousands of dollars in a single election cycle have become the gatekeepers of public office in America,” according to the report, compiled using donor data from the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington.
Sunlight’s report examines common characteristics of the donors, finding that almost 72 percent of them were male and they were most likely to be from Washington or New York.
About 16.5 percent of the 31,385 donors listed their occupation as “CEO” or “chairman” of a company. Eighty-five Goldman Sachs employees contributed about $4.7 million. Other frequently listed companies include private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP (BX:US), legal and lobbying firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP and investment bank Morgan Stanley. (MS:US)
The report showed that while both parties rely upon top donors, Republicans benefited more than Democrats in the 2012 campaign. For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised more than half of its $105.8 million from the 1 percent of the 1 percent, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee took in about 13 percent of its $128.9 million from those donors, according to the report.
Every member of Congress elected in 2012 received some money from these donors, and 86 percent of House members received more money from these wealthy givers than from all of their small-dollar donors -- those giving less than $200 -- combined.
A Gallup poll released today shows that 79 percent of Americans would vote for a law limiting the amount of money candidates for the U.S. House and Senate can raise and spend on political campaigns. In that same poll, half of Americans said they’d vote for a law that installs a government-funded campaign-finance system and bans all contributions from individuals and private groups.
Topping the Sunlight report’s list of members with the greatest share of elite donor contributions was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, who saw more than 40 percent of her $2.3 million in campaign checks come from them.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, had the highest number of elite donors, 2,525 individuals who gave 31 percent of the $22 million he raised.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Bykowicz in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com