Is the Record Number of Small Donations Making a Difference in the 2018 Mid-Term Elections?

Research suggests small donors are more like most Americans than large donors are. How big of a difference will they make to this year's congressional races?
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Beto O'Rourke speaks at a campaign rally on September 29th, 2018, in Austin, Texas.

Beto O'Rourke speaks at a campaign rally on September 29th, 2018, in Austin, Texas.

This, 2018, is shaping up to be the costliest mid-term election ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit that tracks political donations. As of last week, candidates, political parties, PACs, and other groups have spent $4.7 billion, the center finds. Before this, no mid-term had cost more than $4.2 billion.

One of the primary drivers behind this year's unparalleled fundraising: small donations to Democratic candidates.

Among Democratic House of Representatives candidates, small donations of less than $200 made up 16 percent of contributions; among Democratic Senate hopefuls, that figure shot up to 27 percent. For Republicans, the numbers are 8 percent and 13 percent, respectively. For comparison, small donations made up about 10 percent of House candidates' funds in the 2010 mid-terms, and 15 percent Senate candidates', according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That uptick should encourage anyone concerned with political representation, as a plurality of small donations would cover a wider swath of the populace. In a 2016 Pew survey, almost 90 percent of Americans who donated money to somebody running for political office said they gave less than $250.

In their report, researchers from the Center for Responsive Politics also identified the top House and Senate candidates to receive a majority of their funding from small donations. We've marked those who are running for office, but are not incumbents, with an asterisk.

Senate

  • Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont): 77 percent, $8 million
  • Elizabeth Warren (D- Massachusetts): 56 percent, $19 million
  • Corey Stewart (R-Virginia*): 50 percent, $1 million
  • Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas*): 46 percent, $32 million
  • Geoff Diehl (R-Massachusetts*): 45 percent, $1 million

House of Representatives

  • Omar Navarro (R-California*): 71 percent, $700,000
  • Randy Bryce (D-Wisconsin*): 68 percent, $200,000
  • Jeff Dove (R-Virginia*): 66 percent, $400,000
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York*): 62 percent, $1 million
  • Danny O'Connor (D-Ohio*): 61 percent, $4 million

In 2007 and 2008, the Campaign Finance Institute, a non-partisan group that studies money in politics, surveyed donors and non-donors in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Researchers asked survey-takers about hot-button topics of the time, including abortion, same-sex marriage, health care, and the tradeoff between environmental protection and jobs. The small donors were often distinct in their opinions from large and non-donors; for example, they tended to be more economically conservative than non-donors. Still, their distribution of opinions better matched non-donors' than large donors'. That means they may be better matched to the vast majority of Americans—88 percent of Americans said, in 2016, that they didn't donate anything to anyone running for office.

Will this election cycle's numerous small donations mean a bigger voice for more average voters? A few of the candidates most supported by small donations are running against long odds. For example, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) is expected to keep his seat against Corey Stewart, who raised $1 million from small donors, and Representative Maxine Waters (D-California) has a large lead over Omar Navarro, who raised more than $700,000 in small donations. But others have been able to run close races in tough districts, including Wisconsin's Randy Bryce and Texas' Beto O'Rourke, who has pulled in far and away more from small donors than any other candidate for Congress.

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