Characteristics and Behavior of the Rising Class of Small Campaign Donors

New research on US political donations under $200 reveals characteristics of these donors as well as their motivations. A  Q&A with the authors of the new study reveal how the rise in small donors in recent years could have important implications for upcoming US elections.

Q: Why did you choose to study small donors?

A: While existing research often emphasizes the demise of working-class participation on the one hand and the capture of politics by the elite on the other hand, it turns out that small donors have far outnumbered large donors in recent elections. For instance, in 2008 and 2012, the Obama campaign managed to raise large amounts from a large number small donors by relying on an internet-savy fundraising effort. In the 2018 and 2020 elections, Democrats outspent their Republican rivals by millions of dollars, thanks to an army of small donors contributing to their campaign over the Internet.

We thought it was important to better understand this phenomenon, first by carefully documenting the dramatic rise in small donations, second by studying the characteristics of small donors and the extent to which they differ from large donors, and finally by investigating their motivations.

We benefited from the fact that, thanks to the growing intermediation of donations by conduits such as ActBlue and WinRed, researchers can now access detailed contribution-level data on small donors, while the data were restricted to donors contributing more than $200 per electoral cycle to candidates beforehand.

Q: Could you summarize what you discovered about small donors?

A: Beyond the extremely rapid increase in the number of small donors, both among Democrats and more recently among Republicans, we document the fact that small donors differ from large donors on multiple dimensions. In particular, they include more women and ethnic minorities than large donors. According to our estimates, 52.5% of small contributors are women, against 37.7% of large donors. Next, while ethnic minorities are under-represented among both small and large donors, this under-representation is less pronounced among small donors. In particular, the share of Black and Hispanic donors among small donors is twice as large as among large donors.

“Because of a series of Supreme Court rulings, all attempts at regulating donations by large donors and companies have failed.”

We also uncover a number of important differences when studying the determinants of small and large donors’ contributions. Small donors contribute more than large donors to races beyond their own district and they concentrate their contributions on fewer candidates, such as leaders of the Democratic party and its factions (e.g., Nancy Pelosi or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) as well as candidates competing against nemeses of the Democratic party (e.g., Andrew Janz in his 2018 bid against Devin Nunes). In a sense, they seem to be relatively more interested in national than in purely local politics.

Q: Why has the number of small donations gone up in recent years?

A: Our paper does not directly speak to all of the reasons driving the stark increase in the number of small donors and the total amount they give. Yet, we see a number of possible reasons that we want to explore in future work. First, we think this rise can be seen as a reaction to the growing capture of US politics by private money, in particular since Citizens United in 2010. Because of a series of Supreme Court rulings, all attempts at regulating donations by large donors and companies have failed. Small donations can be seen as an alternative path: if large donors’ contributions will not be limited, they can perhaps still be outnumbered by smaller ones!

A second reason that can explain this raise is the availability of a new technology, with the introduction of ActBlue – an online fundraising platform – in 2004 by the Democrats and more recently of Winred in 2019 by the Republicans. First, these conduits make it extremely simple for any citizen, even with limited resources, to make a small donation to almost any candidate. Second, these conduits, and the fact that Internet and social media platforms allow candidates to reach a large number of potential donors at low cost, incentivize candidates to adjust their fundraising strategy so that it includes raising contributions by small donors.

Finally, one of the findings of our work is that small donors respond to advertising. Politicians increasingly use their ability to raise small contributions as a campaign argument. Bernie Sanders was one of the first to emphasize that he was not receiving support from super PACs. More recently, candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also been advertising small donations a lot. In turn, this communication contributes to motivate new citizens to enter the donations’ game.

Q: Are there any implications of your findings on the upcoming midterm elections in the US?

A: We think that a key question for future research, which our paper does not address, is to understand whether the rise in small donations will help to reduce the influence of a small number of rich individuals over US politics – with all its consequences. In particular, this new trend might affect the way candidates campaign, but also the policies they implement once elected.

What we learn from our study is that the number of small donors has increased steadily over the past twenty years. We do not see any slowdown in recent years, quite the contrary. Many other potential small donors probably just need a little nudge to try once. The extent to which candidates from both parties will manage to convince them to do so will be a key factor for the success of either camp in the upcoming elections.

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