Campaign ATM’s: The Political Donor Class


There’s nothing really new in this new study, but it reconfirms what we’ve known (and updates the figures for Congressional candidates) about who provides the lion’s share of money for Congressional campaigns. (Some of the older studies on this topic were done by Public Campaign, and I even recall one funded by the Joyce Foundation that doesn’t appear to be available on the Web. (Too bad. That one was the first and it was a real eye-opener since it confirmed all suspicions about who gives the big money in politics: white, rich males.)

Lee Drutman, writing in the new Miller-McCune magazine, profiles a new analysis. University of Maryland political scientists researched and wrote “The Check Is in the Mail: Interdistrict Funding Flows in Congressional Elections,” which shows how money contributed to congressional elections is raised in ever increasing percentages from a small number of wealthy zip codes, places that Drutman termed “the political ATM’s of the campaign trail.” These locales, full of wealthy and politically engaged donors include Hollywood, Calif.; Manhattan’s Upper East Side; Greenwich, Conn.; and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. As I said, no great surprises.There just aren’t large numbers of people out there with either with disposable incomes or the inclination to make large campaign. Because of this, candidates are increasingly dependent on donors concentrated in those few wealthy urban centers. The report found that in the typical congressional race, less than one-third of individual donations to a candidate came  from people who could actually vote for the candidate and over two-thirds (70.2 percent to be exact) from nonresidents. As Drutman notes, this percentage is steadily increasing, up from 54.5 percent in 1996 and 63 percent in 2000. And as of 2004, in only one in five congressional districts residents provided a majority of funds raised for the campaigns of the candidates running to represent it. And in 18 percent of the districts, 90 percent or more of the funds came from non-residents.

The motivation for the nonresidential donations is “primary partisan and strategic nature, rather than access-oriented or expressive/identity based,” according to the report. “Funds are efficiently redistributed from a small number of highly educated, wealthy congressional districts to competitive districts anywhere in the country.” As Drutman notes, less than 0.6 percent of voting age Americans contributed of more than $200 to a campaign in 2004.

So what’s to be done about it?