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  • Go back to Tracker -- Fall 1998


    Demographics of Contributors
    by Anna Brutzman
    CFIC Staff

    Based in Washington, D.C., Public Campaign is a non-partisan, non-profit organization founded in 1997 that is trying to separate fund raising from politics. Its chief goal is to build public support for "Clean Money Campaign Reform," a voluntary system of public financing for primary and general election campaigns.1

    As part of its goal to engender fairness in politics, the people of Public Campaign used zip code mapping to show how contributions from people of color compare with contributions from white people who in general are more affluent. Called "The Color of Money: Campaign Contributions and Race," the study used two databases: the Federal Election Commission's campaign finance reports, which have a zip code field, and the U.S. Census Bureau's regional racial composition by percentage.

    In 1996, 92 percent of the House races and 88 percent of the Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money. In the last four presidential primaries, the candidate who had the most money by January 1 of the election year has always won the party's nomination Democrats and Republicans alike.

    Clearly, money is steering the election process.

    Thanks to academic and public interest group research, the public now knows more than ever about the economic interests behind campaign contributors. "The Color of Money" report is an attempt to add a whole new dimension to that body of research by looking at race and campaign contributions.

    Public Campaign used government data to paint a portrait of the people who give, and, by extension, those who are shut out. The vast majority of contributions came from areas that are primarily white and wealthy. The pattern held in all 50 states. The findings depict the inherent inequality in our campaign finance system and how it puts people of color at a political disadvantage.

    For example, just one zip code 10021, in New York City contributed $9.3 million. There are 107,000 people in that slice of Manhattan real estate and 91 percent are white. On the other side of the equation are 9.5 million residents of the 483 U.S. communities that are more than 90 percent people of color. They gave $5.5 million.

    There are 2,500 zip codes with more than 50 percent of the people of color and a total population of 41 million. In those areas, only eight of every 10,000 people give a contribution of $200 or more. Compare that to the 26 top-giving zips, where more than four in 100 give such a contribution. The average participation rate in the U.S. overall is slightly more than two people per 1,000.

    Door-opening dollars?

    Non-contributors are excluded from the system in two major ways.

    First, they are not able to help their candidates of choice run and win. Second, incumbent lawmakers largely ignore non-contributors because they hold no promise of financial support for the next election.

    A 1997 study surveyed 1,100 $200-plus contributors.2 Eighty percent said the officeholders regularly pressure donors for contributions. Members of Congress are not soliciting non-contributors by their members of Congress for contributions. Are non-contributors, therefore, not being asked about their views and concerns?

    Half of the donors in the survey said contributors regularly pressure office-holders for favors and seek access to government. Although our study did not attempt to measure other political activity by non-contributing Americans, it seems unlikely they would contact or attempt to pressure their elected representative at the rates that contributors, emboldened by their door-opening dollars, feel free to do.

    Legislators May Favor Contributors

    There is a correlation between race and income and another between income and donations. In the three highest-giving zip codes, the average per capita income was $71,610. In zip code areas with 75 percent of more people of color, the average per capita income was $7,730. There are barely 160,000 residents in those three highest-giving zips, yet they gave as much as the 20 million people in the 1,050 zip code areas with 75 percent or more people of color.

    Legislators may be influenced by these lop-sided contributor dollars in several ways. A senator or representative may blatantly do a favor cast a vote, write a loophole into a law to please a campaign contributor. But the more socially ruinous effect is that Congress members will no longer look to and listen to those segments of society that don't give campaign money. The tougher the race (or the longer they stay in office) and the more time they spend with contributors (vs. constituents), the more they lose touch with the concerns of those back home.

    The top 100 donor communities (80 percent white) that gave an average of $1.4 million will likely be heeded more than the 100 communities with the highest concentration of people of color that gave $7000.

    Every State Affected

    As part of the research for this report we created a set of two maps for each state. One shows zip code areas that gave the most contributions; the other shows each area's racial make-up. Placed side by side, the maps are almost a photo negative of each other. Large contributors live in distinct and separate areas from the non-contributors, often with a majority of people of color.

    Cities Show Dramatic Patterns

    The study examined in more detail the 10 top-giving metropolitan areas and their neighborhoods. In Detroit, for instance, Grosse Pointe, a rich, white enclave, overshadows, contribution-wise, the adjacent majority African-American residential communities, although parts of the majority-black downtown business district (including the area where General Motors has its headquarters) also give heavily.

    In Los Angeles, Malibu and Beverly Hills were among the top-giving neighborhoods but have less than eight percent black residents. Beverly Hills has a similarly low level of Latinos (less than seven percent), though Malibu's Latino population is seven to 30 percent. Residents of 90067, a "fat cat zip," gave on average almost $900 each, while those in communities of color gave 97 cents a piece.

    How and Why Public Campaign Undertook This Study

    Earlier surveys of donors have found that a majority of campaign contributors are white. (In the 1997 survey cited earlier, more than 90 percent of the contributors were white.) Although the Federal Election Commissions (FEC) requires contributors to provide such basic information as their name, address and employer, the commission does not collect information on race. By combining Census data with zip-code based FEC data on contributions of $200 of more from individuals to federal candidates, PACs and parties from 1995 to 1996, we were able to arrive at the racial make-up of these contributors.

    See Public Campaign's Web site at www.publicampaign.org. Also see Kansas City Star columnist Lewis Diuguid's article, "The color of campaign donations," which discusses Public Campaign's work: www.campaignfinance.org/ federalhtml/the_color_of.html/

    Anna Brutzman can be reached at (573) 882-1982 or

    by e-mail at anna@nicar.org