Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

The Wealth Primary 2002

The Role of Big Money in the 2002 Congressional Primaries
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

The problem with money in politics 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. Money is a critical factor in determining election outcomes. Without personal wealth or the ability to raise large sums of money from wealthy contributors, many aspiring candidates are locked out of the process. Those voters who wish to support views that are not supported by wealthy donors are left without an outlet.

Nowhere is the influence of big money on elections more apparent than in the congressional primary elections throughout the United States. Our analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign finance data for the 2002 election cycle indicates that money played a key role in determining election outcomes and that the majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors (many of whom reside out-of-state).

Money was a key determinant in election outcomes. According to FEC data, major party congressional candidates who raised the most money won 90% of their primary races in 2002. Winning candidates out-raised their opponents by a margin of more than 4-to-1, with the winners raising an average of $464,000 and losers raising $99,000.

The vast majority of campaign contributions came from a small number of large donors. 
FEC data indicate that while only 0.12% of voting age Americans made a contribution to a candidate of $500 or more, these large donations accounted for 91% of itemized individual contributions received by primary candidates. 73% of contributions came at or above the $1,000 level, while only 0.07% of voting age Americans made a $1000 contribution.

Out-of-state donors exerted significant influence on primary election contests. 
31% of itemized individual contributions to primary candidates came from out-of-state donors. Residents of Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware and New Hampshire, for example, were significantly outspent in their home states by a combination of residents from just a few wealthy states, including California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

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