Citizens United Means Wealthy, White Donors Dominate 2016 Presidential Fundraising

When so much of the big money comes from white donors, how likely are candidates to prioritize the needs of people of color?

HOLLYWOOD, FL - MARCH 18:  Stacks of money are seen in what is being called a first-of-its-kind exhibit of five million dollars in cash at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on March 18, 2009 in Hollywood, Florida. The display consists of $100 bills encased in a 1,300-pound, custom-made $90,000 bullet-resistant Lexan showcase.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Though the American population is becoming more and more diverse, the presidential candidates are being bankrolled by a pool of very wealthy donors, the vast majority of whom are white.

The trend is driven in part by Citizens United and related campaign finance court decisions that deregulated much of the campaign finance system. With the exception of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has rejected Super PAC support on principle, all of the major presidential candidates are relying on big-money donors to finance their presidential aspirations.

Out of over 50 individual donors who gave $1 million or more to the Super PACs supporting the current field of presidential candidates, only four are nonwhite. And with the exception of a $2.5 million contribution by a company owned by Cuban-American Benjamin Leon, all of the corporate entities that gave $1 million or more to Super PACs are owned or run by white executives.

The New York Times recently reported that just “130 or so families and their businesses provided more than half the money raised through June by Republican candidates and their super PACs.”

And it’s not just the Super PACs, though they are providing the bulk of the money for the race next year. Research compiled by the campaign finance reform group Every Voice Center suggests traditional campaign donations skew heavily to wealthy white neighborhoods.

As Every Voice Center pointed out, just three wealthy, largely white zip codes around Central Park gave more to the presidential candidates than all of the majority black zip codes in the entire country.

As it becomes more and more important in elections to court mega-donors and the ultra-wealthy, candidates will become more and more dependent on the favor of a narrow, unrepresentative sample of Americans for their success,” says Tam Doan, research director for Every Voice Center.

Activists have expressed frustration that politicians in Washington, particularly in Congress, have failed to hold investigations into police-involved killings of African Americans. In April, as demonstrators in Baltimore called for the federal government to bring relief to poverty-striken neighborhoods and clamp down on militarized law enforcement, lawmakers in Washington instead moved to boost spending on the F-35 and other pet projects requested by the defense contracting industry.

“Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color,” notes a report from Demos.

Publicly funded elections and small donor matching programs would provide an incentive for politicians to listen to the needs of a broader, more diverse donor base.

“Strong public financing systems reduce the incentive to go to wealthy donors while increasing the incentive to go to everyday people, especially in your own district,” says Every Voice Center’s Doan.

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