This piece was prepared in collaboration with Ethan Phelps-Goodman.
If you think wealth is concentrated in the United States, just wait till you look at the data on campaign spending.
In the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or slightly less than one in ten thousand Americans) each contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns. Combined, these donors spent $774 million. That’s 24.3% of the total from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups. Together, they would fill only two-thirds of the 41,222 seats at Nationals Park the baseball field two miles from the U.S. Capitol. When it comes to politics, they are The One Percent of the One Percent.
A Sunlight Foundation examination of data from the Federal Election Commission and the Center for Responsive Politics reveals a growing dependence of candidates and political parties on the One Percent of the One Percent, resulting in a political system that could be disproportionately influenced by donors in a handful of wealthy enclaves. Our examination also shows that some of the heaviest hitters in the 2010 cycle were ideological givers, suggesting that the influence of the One Percent of the One Percent on federal elections may be one of the obstacles to compromise in Washington.
The One Percent of the One Percent are not average Americans. Overwhelmingly, they are corporate executives, investors, lobbyists, and lawyers. A good number appear to be highly ideological. They give to multiple candidates and to parties and independent issue groups. They tend to cluster in a limited number of metropolitan zip codes, especially in New York, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
In the 2010 election cycle, the average One Percent of One Percenter spent $28,913, more than the median individual income of $26,364
At the top of this elite group are individuals such as Bob Perry, CEO of Perry Homes, who gave $7.3 million to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads in 2010 and $4.4 million to Swift Vets and POWs for Truth in 2004, and Wayne Hughes, owner and chairman of Public Storage Inc., who gave $3.25 million to American Crossroads in 2010, andFred Eshelman, CEO of Pharmaceutical Product Development who spent $3 million in 2010 on his own group, RightChange. Sunlight’s Ryan Sibley writes more about the top donors here.
Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access. In a world of increasingly expensive campaigns, The One Percent of the One Percent effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. Prospective candidates need to be able to tap into these networks if they want to be taken seriously. And party leaders on both sides are keenly aware that more than 80% of party committee money now comes from these elite donors.