A tiny percentage of very wealthy Americans funded a relatively large chunk of the 2010 congressional midterm races, continuing a trend that has been growing for two decades, according to a new analysis of political contributions.
The Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in politics and government, found that fewer than 27,000 individuals (out of a population of 307 million) each gave at least $10,000 to federal political campaigns in 2010.
Sunlight's report, "The Political One Percent of the One Percent," said these donors combined spent $774 million — 24.3 percent of all money from individuals that went to candidates, PACS, political parties and independent expenditure groups in the 2010 midterms, which swept Republicans into control of the House.
"It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent who account for almost a quarter of all individual campaign contributions," says Lee Drutman, a data fellow with Sunlight.
Looking at the absolute top tier, Drutman says just 17 individuals gave more than $500,000 each.
"We know that money is not equally given by all Americans," says Drutman. "There are very few Americans who can afford to write the kind of big checks that candidates depend on. What surprised us when we did this analysis was just how incredibly concentrated this giving was."
Drutman found that over the past 20 years, the $10,000-plus donors have accounted for an ever bigger share of political contributions. He says everybody — not just candidates — leans harder on the wealthy as campaign spending escalates.
"Parties want to be able to tap into donor networks of people who can give $10,000, $20,000 to the party. And both parties and candidates, both, want to be able to tap into networks who can give unlimited sums of money to independent expenditure groups," says Drutman.
Independent expenditure groups, more commonly known as super PACs, are approved by the Federal Elections Commission. These groups have an unprecedented ability to raise large amounts of cash in order to bombard the opposition with attack ads, such as American Crossroads does on the right and Patriot Majority does on the left.
The Sunlight Foundation's analysis also shows that the donor elite of both parties tend to live in big cities — especially New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. And they break down into three categories of donors.
The biggest category, donors with corporate ties, gave slightly more to Republicans.
The much smaller categories, ideological givers and lawyer-lobbyists, tilted Democratic.
While the Obama campaign and others emphasize their success with small givers, Drutman says there's no mistaking the economic class of the group he looked at.
"These elite donors on average give $29,000 per electoral cycle. That's more than what half of Americans earn in a single year," Drutman explains.
Others analyzing political giving patterns have seen similar trends. "Bear in mind that wealth is concentrated. And this donation pattern, of course, reflects the concentration of wealth in this country," says Jim Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.
Gimpel cautions against jumping to conclusions about the donors and their motives.
"It's easy to suspect that they're the ones behind the scenes pulling the strings, or distorting public policy in some way," says Gimpel. "But you need to show that, right?"
And that's a step the Sunlight Foundation didn't choose to take.