The Small Donor Problem

Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has raised upwards of $10 million dollars a week after launching his presidential campaign. The average contribution of those donations were $27. Sanders is among many to vocally rebuke Super PAC money, he is one to consistently celebrate that much of his donations come from small donors. Services like Actblue, make it relatively easy to donate to a campaign a few dollars. However, “few” adds up. In their second quarter alone, Actblue garnered a whopping $246 million in donations. Furthermore, about 56% of their donations are made through a mobile device, which begs the question who donates and in turn, who builds the Democratic coalition? 

Unfortunately, because Actblue does not collect that sort of data from their users when they make donations, it’s hard to produce and analyze the figures to answer those questions. This arguably makes it even harder for the Democratic party to identify who its constituents are. There’s not even a way to track whether or not the same people who donate, are the same people that turnout come voting day. Similarly, there’s no way of identifying those individual’s stance on healthcare, criminal justice or even education. To add to the issue, small donors come from all over the country. When Beto challenged Ted Cruz in the Senate Race this past year in Texas, about 48% of his Actblue donations came from outside of Texas. Though there were generally a large amount of donations coming from Texas specifically, Actblue’s Executive Director Erin Hill attributes that to Texas’ large population, even though it’s a red state. Most of the cash is coming from Texas’ three major democratic cities: Houston, Austin and Dallas. 

The motivation for small donors can come from almost anywhere, a moving quote or even a political event. Actblue made an upwards of $1.3 million in Quarter 2 specifically for parents who had been separated from their children at the U.S Mexico border in 2017. This is surely an example of small dollar donations being used for good. However, the Democratic party in rejecting Super PAC money has been increasingly reliant on small dollar donations. It was also helpful that the Republican Party didn’t have their own version of “Actblue” til now. Thomas Edsall, Columnist for the NY Times addresses the slipping coalitions in the Democratic Party in multiple articles, most notably The Heartland is Moving Different Directions. In the aforementioned article, he addresses that within the Democratic Party the Moderate to consertive wing is more diverse than we think it is. A Pew Study outlines that in 2016, the democratic party was 57% White, 21% Black and 12% Hispanic. Furthermore, the number of people who consider themselves to be “Liberal” in the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Missouri  and Kansas) is dropping. 2010 = 23%; 2017: 23% meanwhile those who consider themselves moderate have increased from 33% to 37%. As younger migrants move to cities to look for better education and jobs, they are impacting the demographic shift of those areas and leaving elders behind. These areas as being “Midwestern hubs” which can consists of cities like Columbus, Kansas City, Des Moines, Madison, Minneapolis-St. Paul. These are all external demographic changes that the party needs to pay more attention to in order to determine who the voting democratic coalition actually is. Though small donors contribute a great deal financially to campaigns, at the end of the day, we don’t know who they are and to what extent those numbers actually matter. 

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One thought on “The Small Donor Problem

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  1. I really enjoyed this article. I feel like voters don’t often look into who these small donors are so we don’t know where this money is coming from. The whole “small donor” trend of Democratic candidates can come off as almost performative or as virtue signaling, so it’s good to look into how this work actually benefits campaigns and voters.


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