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The Political One Percent of the One Percent

by

This piece was prepared in collaboration with Ethan Phelps-Goodman.

If you think wealth is concentrated in the United States, just wait till you look at the data on campaign spending.

In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That's 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. Together, they would fill only two-thirds of the 41,222 seats at Nationals Park the baseball field two miles from the U.S. Capitol. When it comes to politics, they are The One Percent of the One Percent.

A Sunlight Foundation examination of data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics reveals a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent, resulting in a political system that could be disproportionately influenced by donors in a handful of wealthy enclaves. Our examination also shows that some of the heaviest hitters in the 2010 cycle were ideological givers, suggesting that the influence of the One Percent of the One Percent on federal elections may be one of the obstacles to compromise in Washington.

The One Percent of the One Percent are not average Americans. Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers. A good number appear to be highly ideological. They give to multiple candidates and to parties and independent issue groups. They tend to cluster in a limited number of metropolitan zip codes, especially in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

In the 2010 election cycle, the average One Percent of One Percenter spent $28,913, more than the median individual income of $26,364

At the top of this elite group are individuals such as Bob Perry, CEO of Perry Homes, who gave $7.3 million to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads in 2010 and $4.4 million to Swift Vets and POWs for Truth in 2004, and Wayne Hughes, owner and chairman of Public Storage Inc., who gave $3.25 million to American Crossroads in 2010, and Fred Eshelman, CEO of Pharmaceutical Product Development who spent $3 million in 2010 on his own group, RightChange. Sunlight’s Ryan Sibley writes more about the top donors here.

Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access. In a world of increasingly expensive campaigns, The One Percent of the One Percent effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.

Political scientists Wendy K. Tam Cho and James G. Gimpel have called these elite donor networks “campaign gold” after discovering just how much big contributors tend to flock together, making it easy for candidates to raise substantial sums of money at a single event.

We find that in the 2010 election cycle, 74 federally registered candidates relied on The One Percent of the One Percent for at least half of all of their itemized (over $200) contributions (of those running in that election, 25 won, and 15 lost – the other 34 were not up for election; mostly they were Senators preparing for a future campaign). Only in 2008 did more elected officials (109) rely on The One Percent of the One Percent for half of their itemized contributions. (Candidates and parties do not need to disclose to names of contributions under $200. In the 2010 election cycle, the average congressional campaign got 84% of its money from donations of $200 or more. See our methodology section for more details.)

Congressional candidates are also increasingly relying on contributions from people who do not live in their districts, according to research Professor Gimpel has conducted along with Frances Lee and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz. In a paper entitled “The Check is in the Mail,” they find that candidates are increasingly calling on what the scholars call “political A.T.M.s” – the small number of zip codes that are home to the concentrated communities of high-spending donors.

In short, The One Percent of the One Percent are becoming more important to candidates. While technology may have expanded the possibilities of raising more money through small contributions over the Internet, The One Percent of the One Percent have remained just as important as ever. And with new campaign vehicles for unlimited funding, they are poised to play an even more important role.

What follows are more details about who The One Percent of the One Percent are, and their changing role in elections. (For more on how we define this population, please see our methodology section at the end.)

visualization of the one percent Pin It

graphic by Ali Felski

Who are The One Percent of the One Percent?

In examining the filings of The One Percent of the One Percent, three types of affiliations predominate: corporate, lawyer/lobbyist, and ideological. The three types of affiliations have also been remarkably consistent over time. Roughly 55% of these elite donors have been affiliated with companies, roughly 16% have been affiliated with law and lobbying firms, and roughly 18 % we classify as ideological. The remainder either does not list enough information for us to make a determination or do not fit into one of the three dominant categories. (For more details on how we sorted the donors into categories, please see our methodology section at the end)

Table 1. Share of The One Percent of the One Percent belonging to each category

Cycle Corporate Lawyer/Lobbist Ideological
1990 56.5% 14% 15.1%
1992 57.8% 14% 15.5%
1994 54.2% 15.7% 18.2%
1996 54.6% 15.6% 17.8%
1998 54.6% 16.4% 17.8%
2000 54.3% 15.8% 18.7%
2002 53.6% 15.8% 18.8%
2004 54.7% 15.8% 18.3%
2006 54.6% 15.5% 19.3%
2008 54.5% 15.8% 18.5%
2010 54.8% 15.7% 18.1%

The Corporate One Percent of One Percent

Corporate affiliations are the most common. To the extent that donors listed occupations (many do not), the most common titles were variations on “President,” “CEO,” “Executive,” Chairman”, and “Investor.”

Of the 10 companies with the most representation in The One Percent of the One Percent in the 2010 election cycle six are financial companies. Goldman Sachs, with 92, far outpaces everyone else. Citigroup, with 32, is second.

Table 2. Companies listed most commonly by The One Percent of the One Percent, 2010 election cycle

Corporation # of The One Percent of One Percent
Goldman Sachs 92
Citigroup 32
Microsoft 29
Federated Investors 14
RJ Reynolds Tobacco 13
Comcast 12
E&J Gallo Winery 12
MBNA Corp 12
American International Group 11
Bear Stearns 11
A total of 94 companies had five or more members of The One Percent of the One Percent.

The Lawyer/Lobbyist One Percent of One Percent

A second category of The One Percent of the One Percent comprises individuals affiliated with lobbying and law firms. Lobbyists are well known to be important as campaign fundraisers; they are also frequently quite large contributors themselves. Typically they make up between 15 and 20% of The One Percent of the One Percent.

Table 3. Lobbying firms listed most commonly by The One Percent of the One Percent, 2010 election cycle

Organization # of The One Percent of One Percent
Akin, Gump et al 22
Williams & Jensen 20
Patton Boggs LLP 20
PMA Group 17
Skadden, Arps et al. 15
Cassidy & Associates 13
Sullivan & Cromwell 13
Kirkland & Ellis 12
Simmons Cooper LLC 9
Verner Liipfert 9
Hogan & Hartson 8
A total of 49 law and lobbying firms had five or more members of The One Percent of the One Percent.

The Ideological One Percent of One Percent

In the 2010 election cycle, 18.1% of The One Percent of the One Percent we identified as ideological based on their giving patterns and affiliations. Of these donors, a handful of groups dominate – EMILY’s List (162), Club For Growth (70), and Act Blue (70).

Table 4. Ideological groups listed most commonly by The One Percent of the One Percent, 2010 election cycle

Organization # of The One Percent of One Percent
EMILY’s List 162
Club for Growth 70
ActBlue 70
Moveon.org 14
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee 10
Act Blue / EMILY’s List 7
EMILY’s List / Moveon.org 6
League of Conservation Voters 6
Senate Conservatives Fund 6
JStreetPAC 5

Comparing the three types

Looking at the three different types of donors side by side for the 2010 election cycle, a few patterns emerge.

The ideological contributors on average spend the most (their median contribution level is $17,976). They also give the most money to independent expenditure groups (like American Crossroads) – 21.8%, much more than the other two types of donors. They give on average to 9.5 different candidates.

The lawyer/lobbyist donors give the most money directly to candidates (51.1% goes directly to candidates), and they give to the most different candidates (10.1 on average). Presumably, this is because they are interested in maintaining access to multiple elected officials.

The corporate contributors are the only category to give primarily to Republicans (they contribute 44.1% to Republican candidates and party committees, as compared to 39.8% to Democratic candidates and party committees; the rest goes to other vehicles, including independent expenditures). They tend to give to half as many candidates as they (on average less than 4.6) and give almost half of their money to party committees (the highest percentage of the three types).

Table 5. Patterns of giving by Super Donor type, 2010 election cycle

Law/Lobbying Ideological Corporate All
Median total given $16,350 $17,976 $15,000 $15,200
Mean total given $28,797 $37,933 $27,719 $28,913
Mean # of candidates given to 10.1 9.5 4.6 6.4
% of money to candidates 51.1% 43.4% 35.4% 39.5%
% given to party committees 42.0% 35.8% 48.5% 45.7%
% given to independent expenditure groups 7.3% 21.8% 9.4% 11.6%
% Given to Democratic candidates and parties 70.6% 44.6% 39.8% 46.6%
% Given to Republican candidates and parties 22.6% 34.6% 44.1% 38.5%

Classes of The One Percent of the One Percent

Even within the elite universe of The One Percent of the One Percent, some contributors are more high-powered than others. An elite cadre of 15 contributors each gave more than $500,000, and an almost-as-elite group of 252 gave between $100,001 and $500,000. These high-spending donors give their money primarily through independent expenditure groups, and tend to be more ideological.

The next two classes of The One Percent of the One Percent (those giving between $50,001 and $1000,000 and those giving between $25,001 and $50,000) tend to favor parties as their contribution vehicles of choice. More than half of The One Percent of the One Percent gave less than $25,000. These split more equally between candidates and parties.

Table 6. The One Percent of the One Percent by giving bracket, 2010 election cycle

More than $500K $100,001-$500,000 $50,001-$100,000 $25,001-$50,000 $10,000-$25,000
# of The One Percent of One Percent 17 995 2,468 4,907 18,305
Amount Given $27,761,319 $135,925,304 $172,008,627 $169,265,649 $266,124,661
% of Political 0.0% money 3.6% 17.6% 22.2% 21.9% 34.4%
% who are corporate 47.1% 47.7% 55.2% 54.4% 58.7%
% who are lawyer/lobbyists 0.0% 15.7% 17.2% 18.7% 14.8%
% who are ideological 52.9% 33.4% 22.8% 19.0% 14.6%
% given to independent expenditure groups 92.4% 13.4% 7.4% 7.2% 7.7%
% given to candidates 2.7% 30.4% 34.4% 42.3% 49.6%
% given to parties 4.9% 58.1% 59.5% 49.8% 31.9%

The Rise of The One Percent of the One Percent

In the last two decades, both the cost of campaigning and the size of campaign donor bases have increased. So has the number of individuals giving $10,000 or more in real 2010 dollars, the cut-off point to be included in The One Percent of the One Percent. (For purposes of comparability, we’ve kept the cut-off point stable over time. See our methodology section for more details)

A few trends are worth highlighting. The community of donors giving more than $10,000 (in 2010 dollars) has more than quadrupled, from 6,456 in 1990 to 26,783 in 2010. In 1990, they accounted for 28.1% of all itemized (over $200) donations. By 2010, that number had risen to 44.1%. These donors are also accounting for an increasing number of all donations. And they’re giving more, too. In 1990, the average donation was $13,443. By 2010, it was more than double: $28,913.

Table 7. Evolution of The One Percent of the One Percent

Cycle Membership of The One Percent of One Percent Median amount given Average amount given Share of itemized donors Share of all itemized contributions Share of all contributions
1990 6456 $10,000 $13,443 2.0% 28.1% N/A
1992 10486 $11,000 $16,317 2.1% 31.9% N/A
1994 8167 $11,000 $16,926 1.7% 28.2% N/A
1996 16255 $14,056 $25,627 2.4% 41.6% N/A
1998 11305 $12,500 $22,507 2.2% 36.8% N/A
2000 19927 $13,590 $25,868 2.4% 40.3% 19.0%
2002 14406 $13,500 $27,377 1.9% 38.2% 18.7%
2004 32616 $15,355 $27,680 2.9% 41.9% 21.2%
2006 25469 $15,550 $25,495 3.2% 41.9% 22.1%
2008 44743 $17,400 $30,790 3.4% 44.3% 27.5%
2010 26783 $16,850 $28,913 3.3% 44.1% 24.3%

Parties are becoming more reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent

Individuals can give up to $30,800 per year to party committees, making these elite donors especially valuable to Democratic and Republican officials. In 2010, party committees relied on The One Percent of the One Percent for 81.6% of all itemized contributions, the second-highest percentage since 1990, which is as far back as our data go.

As party committees raise more money, they are becoming more reliant on big donors. The last four cycles election mark four of the five cycles in which the parties have been most reliant on donors giving more than $10,000.

Table 8. Parties’ reliance on The One Percent of the One Percent

Cycle Total parties raised from itemized contribution % of itemized contributions from One Percent of One Percent Republican Party % of itemized contributions from One Percent of One Percent Democratic Party % of itemized contributions from One Percent of One Percent
1990 $111,769,441 59.7% 53.7% 67.8%
1992 $175,162,189 64.0% 57.0% 73.6%
1994 $139,056,980 70.8% 60.6% 84.0%
1996 $484,053,381 44.9% 38.8% 53.1%
1998 $261,258,960 55.0% 48.2% 64.3%
2000 $528,119,721 46.4% 43.7% 49.4%
2002 $426,944,679 41.1% 37.6% 45.6%
2004 $763,117,406 67.8% 63.8% 72.5%
2006 $596,278,361 92.7% 91.6% 93.9%
2008 $1,202,227,211 66.4% 60.2% 73.0%
2010 $522,058,279 81.6% 85.9% 77.9%

Politicians are more becoming reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent

Candidates are also becoming increasingly reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent as sources of funding.

In 1990, only 13 federal candidates relied on The One Percent of the One Percent for at least half of their itemized donors. In the 2010 election cycle, 74 did. A big transition happened in the wake of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance regulations in 2002. With soft money off the table, individual campaigns became much more reliant on big The One Percent of the One Percent. In 2004, 56 candidates relied on The One Percent of the One Percent for at least half of their campaign funding, as compared to just nine the year before.

Table 9. Candidates relying on The One Percent of the One Percent for at least half of their itemized contributions

Total Republicans Democrats
1990 13 5 8
1992 17 3 14
1994 10 5 5
1996 6 0 6
1998 12 5 7
2000 17 8 8
2002 9 3 6
2004 56 23 31
2006 53 25 26
2008 109 34 74
2010 74 22 50
Over time, the share of all individual campaign contributions coming from The One Percent of the One Percent has increased for both parties, increasing from 17.8% in 1990 to 32.1% in the 2010 election cycle. Consistently, Democrats have been slightly more reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent than Republicans – relying on The One Percent of the One Percent for, on average, about three percentage points more of their itemized campaign receipts.

Table 10. Share of itemized candidate money coming from The One Percent of the One Percent

All Candidates Republicans Candidates Democratic Candidates
1990 17.8% 14.5% 20.9%
1992 19.4% 16.6% 21.7%
1994 17.0% 13.3% 20.9%
1996 14.7% 13.3% 16.6%
1998 17.8% 15.3% 20.6%
2000 21.2% 19.3% 23.8%
2002 19.0% 17.4% 20.6%
2004 32.6% 31.0% 34.5%
2006 30.4% 28.3% 31.6%
2008 33.2% 32.0% 34.1%
2010 32.1% 29.7% 35.0%
Looking at the top recipients of One Percent of the One Percent money among current House and members (measured by share of their itemized* donations coming from The One Percent of the One Percent), Californians and Democrats dominate. Six of the ten House Members relying most on The One Percent of the One Percent are from California. Seven of the ten House Members are Democrats.

*We count only itemized (over $200) donations here, since the names of donors are not provided for contributions under $200. Contributions of $200 and up typically account for 80% of all campaign donations.

Table 11. Current House members most dependent on One Percent of One Percent money in the 2010 election cycle

Member Share of all itemized funding from The One Percent of One Percent Total money raised from The One Percent of One Percent
Pete Stark (D-CA) 80.6% $25,000
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) 74.5% $713,585
Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) 59.0% $444,592
Jerry Lewis (R-CA) 57.3% $103,600
George Miller (D-CA) 56.5% $200,085
Gregory Meeks (D-NY) 56.3% $148,705
Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) 55.8% $172,838
Doris Matsui (D-CA) 55.3% $125,390
Anna Eshoo (D-CA) 55.3% $351,123
John Kline (R-MN) 53.7% $359,510
Senators most dependent on The One Percent of the One Percent also are more likely to be Democrats. For the 2010 election cycle, seven of the top ten candidates most reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent were Democrats. Interestingly, the top nine candidates most reliant on The One Percent of the One Percent in their fundraising were not actually up for election. Among the top ten, only Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) was actually on the ballot last year. The other two Republicans who rely most heavily on The One Percent of the One Percent are in two of least populous states.

Table 12. Current senators most dependent on One Percent of One Percent money in the 2010 election cycle

Senator Share of all itemized funding from The One Percent of One Percent Total money raised from The One Percent of One Percent
John Kerry (D-MA) 61.8% $1,109,100
James Risch (R-ID) 61.5% $30,950
Mark Pryor (D-AR) 60.8% $49,900
Kay Hagan (D-NC) 60.1% $123,662
Ben Nelson (D-NE) 58.9% $356,126
Mark Udall (D-CO) 57.5% $187,449
Byron Dorgan (D-ND) 57.1% $625,424
Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) 56.3% $135,850
Mike Enzi (R-WY) 55.9% $13,400
Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) 55.6% $2,005,614

Actually up for election the 2010 election cycle

Another important aspect of The One Percent of the One Percent's money is that the majority of it comes from out of state. While in general, candidates have relied on out-of-state money for about one in three of all their itemized dollars, this share is much higher when it comes to itemized donations from The One Percent of the One Percent. The share of The One Percent of the One Percent money coming from out of state has hovered around 55%. This reflects the fact that The One Percent of the One Percent are not spread evenly across the country.

Table 13. Share of One Percent of One Percent money from out of state

Cycle One Percent of One Percent Share from Out of State Itemized Share from Out of State
1990 65.1% 33.5%
1992 52.8% 29.5%
1994 55.5% 29.7%
1996 56.4% 30.1%
1998 55.3% 28.5%
2000 54.4% 34.1%
2002 61.2% 33.0%
2004 53.3% 35.6%
2006 58.3% 36.9%
2008 54.8% 43.7%
2010 53.4% 34.9%

The Geography of The One Percent of the One Percent

graphic by Drew Vogel

Members of the One Percent of the One Percent are not evenly distributed throughout the country, as the accompanying map makes clear (though over time, clusters of One Percent of the One Percent money are showing up in more and more parts of the country).

They overwhelmingly congregate in a handful of metro areas. In the 2010 election cycle, the top metro area for The One Percent of the One Percent were New York, NY (2,981), Washington, DC (2,095), Los Angeles, CA (1,358), Chicago, IL (1,244) and San Francisco, CA (1,047). The list of top One Percent of the One Percent metro areas is almost exactly the same as it was in 1990. The only new city is hedge-fund rich Greenwich, CT, which displaced Houston to #11 on the list.

Table 14. Top Metro areas for The One Percent of the One Percent, 2010 election cycle

Area # of The One Percent of One Percent
New York City, NY 2,981
Washington, DC 2,095
Los Angeles, CA 1,358
Chicago, IL 1,244
San Francisco, CA 1,047
Boston, MA 877
Miami, FL 862
Philadelphia, PA 646
Dallas, TX 607
Greenwich, CT 536
Table 15. Top Metro areas for The One Percent of the One Percent, 1990 election cycle
Area # of The One Percent of One Percent
New York City, NY 835
Washington, DC 498
Los Angeles, CA 465
Chicago, IL 219
Miami, FL 166
San Francisco, CA 161
Dallas, TX 151
Philadelphia, PA 123
Houston, TX 122
Boston, MA 121
But even within these metro areas, a small number of zip codes stand out.

In New York, the top zip codes are 10021 (Upper East Side), 10024 (Upper West Side), 10023 (Upper West Side), 10028 (Upper East Side), 10019 (Upper West Side)

Table 16. Top New York zip codes

Zip code # of The One Percent of One Percent
10021 109
10024 105
10023 67
10028 67
10019 61
In Washington, DC, the top zip codes are 20007 (Georgetown) and 20008 (Cleveland Park), 22101 (McLean, VA), 20815 (Chevy Chase) and 20817 (Bethesda)

Table 17. Top Washington, DC zip codes

Zip code # of The One Percent of One Percent
20007 60
20008 57
22101 57
20815 50
20817 43
In Los Angeles, CA, the top zip codes are 90210 (Beverly Hills), 90067 (Century City), 90077 (Bel Air), and 90025 (West L.A.), 90402 (Santa Monica)

Table 18. Top Los Angeles, CA zip codes

Zip code # of The One Percent of One Percent
90210 75
90067 44
90077 34
90025 29
90402 29
These geographical patterns highlight that these The One Percent of the One Percent concentrate together in high-income areas. They are far from evenly distributed throughout the nation.

Conclusions

There are approximately 312 million people living in the United States. Yet just 26,783 (less than one in ten thousand) accounted for 24.3% of all political contributions in the 2010 election cycle.

Unlike the 99.99% of Americans who do not spend ten grand of their own money on an election cycle (mostly because they can’t afford to do so), The One Percent of the One Percent have unique access to candidates and party leaders. They know that candidates and parties need their money, and this presumably allows them to play a kind of gatekeeper role, allowing them to set the parameters of priorities of “legitimate” politics.

They congregate in a limited number of elite zip codes. Their concerns are not the concerns of ordinary Americans.

Some are motivated by ideological reasons. For others, the motivation is less partisan and more pragmatic: Many are lawyers and lobbyists, and even more are corporate executives, all seeking to influence legislation and policy.

Over time, more individuals are choosing to spend $10,000 or more on politics, and candidates and especially parties are becoming more reliant on them. With new vehicles for unlimited money in the 2012 election, a small number of individuals with both the means and the motive to spend lavishly on elections are poised to play an even greater role. To the extent that the priorities and interests of these elite donors are not representative of the country, there are good reasons to be concerned that their unique access is having a distorting impact on our politics.

 

Methodology

All of the data used in this analysis originates from the Federal Election Commission. Information on the total amounts raised by candidates and committees comes from the FEC's summary files, available here. Information on itemized contributions (contributions over $200) is published by the FEC and standardized by our partner organization, The Center for Responsive Politics. (CRP). CRP identifies unique donors and assigns organizational and ideological affiliations. Contributions under $200 are not required to be itemized, so our analysis cannot say anything about the characteristics of this group of donors, other than the total amount of money raised.

Figures for total amounts given by all individuals are computed by summing the total individual amounts listed in the candidate and PAC summary files. Contributions coming from organizations, rather than individuals, are not considered anywhere in our analysis. Figures for the total itemized contributions are taken by summing all contributions from individuals in the CRP itemized data. The only exception is candidate self-contributions (FEC transaction type 15c), which are excluded from the analysis. This results in figures that are higher than those reported by CRP here since CRP's analysis includes only contributions to candidate, party and leadership committees, and not independent committees.

We identified the set of super donors by finding all CRP contributor IDs associated with at least $10K in contributions in a single cycle. These contributions could be to candidates, party committees, or independent groups. Because of contribution limits to candidates and party committees, donors in the upper ranges of the super donors are giving mostly to 527s and SuperPACS, for which there are no contribution limits.

We categorized the donors using CRP's ContribCode field, which includes codings for lobbyists, ideological groups and business sectors. If the candidate has given any money to an ideological group then they are considered an ideological donor. If they have given any money as a lobbyist then they are considered a lobbyist donor. If the contributions fall into any of the hundreds of business sector categories then they are considered a corporate donor.