Every Voice


Should my hometown be able to enforce a national pro-pepperoni roll agenda?

April 30, 2015 | Adam Smith

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A population about the size of my hometown of Parkersburg, W.V.a.–roughly 32,000 people–made a full 29 percent of disclosed campaign contributions in 2014 federal elections, according to analysis released today by the Sunlight Foundation and Center for Responsive Politics.

That one percent of one percent of the U.S. population gave $1.18 billion to political committees that disclose to the Federal Election Committee, a greater share of total contributions in the 201o and 2012 cycles.

Here are some other facts from the analysis that stand out to me:

  • A lot comes from Wall Street. “[T]he finance, insurance and real estate category (FIRE) remains the best represented among the One Percent of the One Percent.” Specifically, the report finds, “securities and investments (Wall Street for short), was the career choice of the largest number of the One Percent of the One Percent.”
  • Really, though, a lot of Wall Street money. “Goldman Sachs, the global investment bank, was the most prolific organization on our 2014 list, with more employees among the One Percent of the One Percent’s list of super donors than any other organization we could identify.”
  • It’s a trend that’s going to get worse. “In 2010, only 14 individuals contributed a total of $500,000 or more, while members of the $1 million-plus club numbered only eight. In 2014, the number of $500,000 and up donors ballooned to a whopping 134, and 63 people gave more than $1 million.”
  • It’s mostly men. “Compared to the population at large, men are heavily overrepresented among top political donors. …just under 75 percent were men, who accounted for 78 percent of the total contributions — almost exactly the same ratios as in 2012 and 2010.”

And to be clear, these are just the donations we know about. So-called “dark money” groups that don’t have to disclose their donors spend a few hundred million in the 2014 cycle and a lot of those efforts were likely fueled by massive donations.

So why does this matter? Well, first, it’s unfair to the rest of the country that so few people–the equivalent of my hometown–would have such an outsized influence on the candidates who get elected and policies that get implemented. I’d love to enforce a national pro-pepperoni roll agenda, but that doesn’t mean we should. The same goes for tax, regulatory, and energy policies supported by the wealthiest among us.

But moreover, they couldn’t buy that power if they wanted to. The median family income of Parkersburg is just $32,577. Almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level. My mom and dad can’t write big checks to politicians. Neither can their friends or neighbors, making it hard for them to catch the ear of politicians—from the state house to the White House.

As Demos found in its Stacked Deck report, political inequality leads to economic inequality. If candidates spend all their time dialing for dollars and attending fundraisers with the wealthiest among us, they can’t help but be influenced by those conversations. They also know that they have to be careful not to offend them too much once elected so the cash will keep flowing.

That’s why bills like Rep. John Sarbanes’ (D-Md.) Government By the People Act (HR 20) are so important. It would encourage political participation and empower small dollar donors to have a bigger voice in politics. It would incentivize candidates to focus on their constituents instead of dialing for dollars from the wealthiest among us. It’d give my people in Parkersburg more influence and the biggest donors in politics less.

Adam Smith

Adam Smith is Every Voice's communications director.