University of Rochester

'Serious Money' Takes Hard Look at Cash and Presidential Campaigns

April 30, 1996

Money, and lots of it, is vital to win the presidency. In seven out of eight major-party nomination contests since 1980, the winner was the man who had the most money in the bank on January 1.

Experienced fundraisers know that some donors give more money, and give more regularly, than ordinary citizens, and that winning the confidence and contributions of this group is one of the keys to political success.

Yet, until the recent publication of Serious Money by Clifford W. Brown Jr., Lynda W. Powell, and Clyde Wilcox [Cambridge University Press, Fall, 1995], no book had analyzed in depth the role of these committed, serious contributors. Serious Money focuses on the people that fundraisers most want to reach: Those who give between $201 and $1,000 to a single candidate. Since current financial rules went into effect in 1980 limiting individual contributions to $1,000 or less, no presidential aspirant has been a serious contender without getting contributions from tens of thousands of such people.

Serious Money also examines the effect of current campaign laws, noting, for example, that the "matching funds" provision may actually encourage candidates with more extreme, emotional messages. Why? Because such candidates are often more able than moderate candidates to raise large numbers of small contributions through mass mailings.

Through interviews and questionnaires, the authors collected extensive data from "serious money" donors who gave in 1988 and 1992, and analyzed it to develop a profile of these special givers. Here are some findings about donors of "serious money" and the impact they have on elections that some readers may find surprising:

 Despite regulatory efforts to broaden the pool of contributors and include more small donors, the bulk of money candidates raise still comes from larger contributors.

 In 1988, these larger contributors gave more than 70% of the money from individuals collected by Bush, Dole, DuPont, Babbitt, Dukakis, Gephardt, and Gore.

 In 1992, more than 90% of Bush's funds, more than 80% of Clinton's, and more than 70% of Kerrey's, came from donors of serious money. The percentages were less for Tsongas and Harkin, but more than half of their funds came from this kind of donor. Only Buchanan, who raised about a third of his money from this source, and Brown, who refused contributions of more than $100, based their campaigns on mobilizing smaller contributors.

Despite efforts to encourage candidates to raise monies from a broader range of contributors, those who give in excess of $100 look little different today than they did in 1972, before current campaign finance rules were adopted:

 Contributors make more money and are better educated than the general public. In 1988, 30% had graduate degrees, and 30% had household incomes of more than $250,000.

 They are more likely than the mass public to be strong partisans, and so the contributing pool is loosely divided along party lines. Nearly half say they give exclusively to candidates from one party.

 Democratic givers tend to have higher levels of education, Republican givers tend to have higher incomes.

 Donors are disproportionately white and male -- regardless of the race of the candidate.

 Despite candidates' attempts to find new sources of support, the vast majority of those who give to presidential candidates have given at least occasionally in the past.

How candidates raise cash

There are two basic methods of raising money -- personal solicitations and mass appeals by direct mail or telemarketing. Candidates with strong, emotional appeals to individuals at the ideological extremes of their parties tend to rely on direct mail and telemarketing. More mainstream candidates, especially ones who can tap resources associated with current political office, rely primarily on personal solicitations.

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