This is the year of the mega-donor: just forty-two people are responsible for nearly a third of Super PAC spending in the 2014 election cycle. Super PACs, meanwhile, are outspending the national parties. The list of would-be kingmakers includes Tom Steyer, the former hedge-fund manager who’s poured out $73 million to elect environmentally friendly Democrats; Michael Bloomberg, who’s distributed upwards of $20 million on behalf of both sides; and Paul Singer, the “vulture-fund billionaire” and powerful Republican fundraiser.
Take a look at the list of top donors. They might have distinctly different political agendas, but they have one thing irrefutably in common: they’re almost exclusively old white guys. Only seven women made it into the forty-two, and not a single person of color.
One of the things highlighted in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, is how poorly America’s political leadership, from city councils to the US Senate, reflects the diversity of the country. According to data compiled by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, white men make up 65 percent of elected officials—more than twice their proportion in the general population. Only 4 percent of our political leaders are women of color. As Jelani Cobb writes in The New Yorker, the midterm elections won’t right this imbalance between demographics and political representation, no matter which party wins the Senate.
In fact, the midterms suggest that white men are gaining clout, at least behind the veil. As campaign-finance laws erode, political power is increasingly concentrated among the billionaires playing the strings of the electoral marionette—a pool that looks less diverse even than Congress. (Given the prominence of dark-money groups, it’s likely that some of the biggest individual players in the midterms are anonymous. But there’s no indication that secret donors are any more diverse than others.)
It’s shrinking, too. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of individual donors increased each election cycle. This year, the pool contracted from 817,464 individual contributors in 2010 to 666,773 as of late October, according to a new analysis from CRP. “Despite only a slight increase in the cost of the election, outside groups, which are overwhelmingly fueled by large donors, are picking up more of the tab, candidates are cutting back on their spending, and there are fewer large (over $200) individual donors contributing overall to candidates and parties,” reads the report.
Politicians should be accountable to the electorate, which is growing more diverse. But the fact that candidates are growing more dependent on a narrow group of contributors means that they may be responsive to a limited set of concerns. There are many factors blunting the political impact of demographic changes, but certainly laws that amplify a less diverse group of people’s voices over others’ in an election is one of them.