Summer 2008

The Rise of the Donor Class

– The Wilson Quarterly

Meet the donor class, a small group of wealthy, highly educated urban and suburban residents with the means and inclination to influence the outcomes of congressional races far afield.

Americans have never been as interested in social class as Europeans, partly because most people consider themselves middle class, no matter what their in­come. But political scientists have identified a distinct new demo­graphic group perched geographically and econ­omically apart from the hoi polloi. Made up of individuals with the means and inclin­ation to influence the outcomes of congressional races far afield, this small group of wealthy, highly educated urban and suburban residents constitutes the growing donor ­class.

Today’s typical congressional candidate now receives more than two-thirds of all individual donations from people outside the contested district, write James G. Gimpel, Frances E. Lee, and Shan­na ­Pearson-­Merkowitz, professor, associate professor, and graduate student in political science, respectively, at the University of Maryland. In fully 18 percent of all congressional districts, candidates receive almost all of their personal checks from beyond the boun­daries of the area they are seeking to ­represent.

The wealthy segregate them­selves even more than the poor, and the donor class is concen­trated in a few places, including Los Angeles; New York City; suburban Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Florida; Lake County, Illinois; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Bergen County, New Jersey, the authors say. The flow of funds doesn't go from rich to poor or urban to rural, but from the donor class to competitive races wherever they may ­be.

While political action committees have been shown to donate to gain access to members of Con­gress, the new class gives to “make a difference” in party align­ment, Gimpel and his col­leagues write. The donor class typically ignores primaries. “Distant nonresidents respond unambiguously only to ­two-­party competition,” they say. ­Repub­­lican-­leaning and ­Demo­cratic-­leaning enclaves are both well represented in the donor class. As the level of competitiveness increases, so do the ­checks.

Reformers have expressed concern that the increasing role of ­non­resident donors obligates mem­bers of Congress to favor the priorities of distant givers over the locals they represent. But because of the crucial role of the party in identifying close races and mobilizing tried-and-true contributors, law­makers are more indebted to the party than to individual donors. Large individual dona­tions from distant locales are, functionally speaking, not individual at all, say the authors. “They are instead extensions of the modern parties’ organizations into the electorate.”

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The Source: "The Check is in the Mail: Interdistrict Funding Flows in Congressional Elections" by James G. Gimpel, Frances E. Lee, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, in the American Journal of Political Science, April 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Matthew Burpee