Report: Making Health Care Work

The Best Elections Money Can Buy

Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

One of American democracy’s most pressing problems is that large contributions—which only a fraction of the American public can afford to make—unduly influence who can run for office and who wins elections in the United States. While many observers focus on quid pro quo corruption and the influence of money on politicians, the wholesale influence of money on the outcome of elections is a more far-reaching distortion of the American political process. Indeed, if campaign contributions did not affect election results, it is doubtful that donors would have any sway with legislators once elections are over.

Experience teaches us that money is a critical factor in determining election outcomes. In 2000, 94 percent of the candidates who raised the most money won their general election contests.1 In the 2002 congressional primaries, 90 percent of the biggest fundraisers emerged victorious.2

The dominance of the most prolific fundraisers might not be noteworthy if candidates were raising money from average citizens. In this scenario, the amount of money a candidate is able to raise would be an approximate proxy for his or her level of support in the community. It would therefore follow that those with more grassroots support would win most elections.

However, recent research has shown that this is far from the case. For the 2000 election cycle, 46% of the itemized individual contributions to candidates came at or above $1,000. 3 Yet only 0.11% of the voting age population of the United States made a contribution at this level.4 For the 2002 congressional primaries, 73% of the itemized individual contributions to candidates came from the 0.07% of voting age Americans who made contributions at or above $1,000. 5 Fully 90% of itemized individual contributions to candidates in 2002 primaries came at or above $500, yet only 0.12% of voting age Americans made a contribution that large.6

The end result of our current big money political system is that a small number of special interests and wealthy donors exert a disproportionate amount of influence over which candidates are able to mount viable campaigns for office and who wins elections.

In this report, we predict that the biggest fundraisers, who are able to leverage the support of large contributors, will continue to win almost all of their election contests.

The recently enacted Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002—often called the McCain-Feingold bill—doubled the amount that wealthy donors may contribute directly to candidates from the current limit of $1,000 per election to $2,000 per election, or $4,000 per election cycle.

While the legislation included many helpful provisions intended to curb the influence of “soft money,” or unlimited contributions to political parties and unchecked spending by outside interest groups, the increases in hard money limits will augment the influence of the wealthiest donors. Therefore, in the immediate future, the problem of big money candidates mobilizing support from a small group of large donors to vastly outspend their opposition is likely to get worse, not better.

Look Who’s Not Coming to Washington. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, January 2001.
The Wealth Primary, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, October 2002.
3 Reinforcing the Rich. Public Citizen, February 2001.
4 Ibid.
The Wealth Primary, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, October 2002.
6 Ibid.

Support Us

Your donation supports U.S. PIRG’s work to stand up for consumers on the issues that matter, especially when powerful interests are blocking progress.

Consumer Alerts

Join our network and stay up to date on our campaigns, get important consumer updates and take action on critical issues.
Optional Member Code

U.S. PIRG is part of The Public Interest Network, which operates and supports organizations committed to a shared vision of a better world and a strategic approach to social change.