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October 23, 2002

Why Big Donors Represent Little People

Opensecrets.org, the admirable archive of campaign finance research, has released a report on the biggest donors over the last decade or so. See their report Blue Chip Investors. (Thanks to Tapped for the link).

The problem with the report is that because it targets identifiable organizations, like unions or trade associations, it conflates many people giving small amounts of money through an association with the wealthy who write individual checks that give them disproportionate influence on elections.

Look at the list of top donors here. Topping the list is AFSCME, the public employees union, that gave a seemingly impressive $30 million to candidates from 1989 through this year. But with 1.3 million members, that works out to less than $24 per member over those years, or less than $2 per year from each member going into politics. And the National Education Association, the dreaded schoolteacher lobby, contributed less than $9 per member over the period, or the equivalent of about the cost of a school milk container for each member per year.

Compare this to Bush's big-time pioneers, who don't get listed collectively on lists like this, because they raise individual funds. But check out this profile by Texans for Social Justice of the individuals political givers on the Pioneer lists, not just in Bush's election but over the years. Top Bush pioneer and real estate mogul Alex Spanos alone has given $877,000 just by himself since 1996.

The point is that these types of big givers and fundraising networks among individuals are the real pernicious influence on political inequality, not the political action committees that allow small donors like union members to pool their money. I disliked McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill because it raised the contribution limits on rich individuals while restricting the power of small donors to make their voice heard effectively. See my article here on that issue.

I've regrouped the OpenSecrets list of top donors by contributions per member. It's hard to calculate that for corporations, since getting the number of individual shareholders takes a bit of research. Even then, the number is misleading, since real control of corporate giving goes to big stockholders and institutional investors, only a few of whom have real working class representation through pension funds in their decision-making. But even the example of top giver Phillip Morris is striking; even if you assume that each shareholder has equal power in decision-making, it still adds up an average of $1118 in contributions per shareholder over the period. A few widely held companies like AT&T come out with lower per-share giving rates, but most companies probably resemble Phillip Morris far more than AT&T.

See the table by going to the extended entry--


Donations 89-92


Donations per member

Phillip Morris

$19 million

17,000 shareholders


National Auto Dealers Assn

$14.2 million



Association of Trial Lawyers

$19.9 million

56,000 members


American Medical Association

$18.4 million

252,000 members


National Assn of Home Builders

$12.6 million



National Assn of Letter Carriers

$12.7 million



Machinists & Aerospace Workers Union

$16.4 million

450,000 members


Carpenters & Joiners Union

$17.6 million

520,000 members


National Association of Realtors

$20.4 million

750,000 members 


Communications Workers of America

$17.6 million

700,000 members


Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers

$18.4 million

761,500 members


United Auto Workers

$17 million

710,000 members



$30.7 million

1,300,000 members


Laborers Union

$16.7 million

800,000 members


Teamsters Union

$18.5 million

1,400,000 members


American Federation of Teachers

$15.5 million

1,300,000 members


Service Employees International Union

$17.6 million

1,500,000 members


United Food & Commercial Workers Union

$16.3 million

1,400,000 members



$17.5 million

1,800,000 shareholders


National Education Association

$21.1 million

2,500,000 members


National Rifle Assn

$13.4 million




$12.4 million



Posted by Nathan at October 23, 2002 09:24 AM

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