Blue-Collar Donors? Not in This Election Cycle:
Uncovering Who Really Gives in the 2000 Race for the Presidency
By David Knox
Akron Beacon Journal
See this entry in the IRE Resource Center database
Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000
You don't need a computer to find evidence that the folks who financed the 2000 presidential primaries aren't a cross-section of the electorate.
Federal Election Commission filings for any of the four front-running candidates read like the rolls of a tony country club: mostly business executives, lawyers and other professionals. Blue-collar, clerical and service employees - the majority of the workforce - are scarcely seen.
A potent objection to drawing any conclusions from that casual observation is that the FEC listings don't give a full picture of the giving because Federal law requires personal information - name, address, occupation and employer - only for those who donate more than $200. Arguably, the small-amount givers, flying under the regulators' radar, could very well represent a much broader spectrum of equally enthusiastic - albeit less well-heeled - supporters.
A way around the problem came from an unlikely source. Texas Gov. George W. Bush filled in the missing part of his donor-base when he announced Sept. 9 that he was posting on his campaign's Internet Web site a complete list of contributors, going back to the start of his presidential bid. The Republican candidate challenged Americans to "look for themselves to find out who is helping to fund my campaign."
The Beacon Journal did just that - systematically profiling the Ohio contributors for Bush, and also for his chief GOP rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Democratic front-runners Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
The resulting story, "Elite donors sway Ohio primary races," (available on IRE's Campaign Finance Information Center) found that contrary to their claims of widespread grass-roots support, all four candidates pulled the bulk of their donations in the critical first three quarters of 1999 from the upper reaches of the corporate and professional world.
The methodology used was similar to that pioneered by Larry Makinson, director of the non-profit Center for Responsive Politics: trace the money in politics back to its economic sources. Tag the contributors - via their employment information - to specific business and industry sectors.
The Beacon Journal's strategy categorized the contributors according to their occupations using a widely accepted classification scheme.
The first step was choosing the most appropriate system of classifying the occupations of the contributors. The OCC system, used by the U.S. Census, was rejected because its categories were too broad and the data too old. The new federal Standard Occupational Classification system classifies jobs in excruciating detail, but hasn't been implemented yet.
The Beacon settled on the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) system used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which provide fairly recent (1997) figures for Ohio on the proportion of workers in each category, which could be compared to the results of the analysis of campaign contributors.
Obtaining the contributor data for Gore, Bradley and McCain was straightforward. Those candidates file electronically with the Federal Election Commission. The delimited text files were downloaded from the FEC's ftp site and imported into Microsoft Access.
Bush was more difficult. Although he went beyond the demands of law by posting his contributors on the Internet, Bush did not file electronically with the FEC until the fourth quarter. Until then, the only non-paper sources for his contributions were his Adobe Acrobat files posted on his Web site. (The data is now available through a search engine on the Bush site.)
While convenient for browsing, the Acrobat format is notorious database unfriendly. Lacking a staff programmer fluent in Postscript - Acrobat's native language - we resorted to brute force techniques. To convert the data into plain text, blocks of Acrobat text from Bush's site were defined, copied and pasted into a text editor.
The resulting files were cut down to manageable size with a simple Visual Basic program that neatly extracted about 2,000 records of Ohio contributors. A word processor's global search-and-replace function was used to delimit fields in the text for importing into the database.
The process sounds worse than it was. By far, the most time-consuming part of the project was tracking down the specific occupations of contributors who described their jobs in ambiguous terms, such as "manufacturer" or "sales." Various on-line and paper sources, including other campaign finance records, company documents and SEC filings, were used to determine specific job titles.
Where answers couldn't be found, we called the contributors. Donors were also contacted in a few cases where the employment information was suspect. For example, the sole "farmer" who contributed to Bush's campaign turned out to be a CEO of a major Cincinnati firm.
"It's my wife's family farm,'' he explained.
The chief finding of the study was that the candidates - regardless of party - drew from the same well: More than nine of 10 employed contributors to all four candidates were identified as business managers, administrators and professions. The proportions ranged narrowly from 94 percent for Gore to nearly 98 percent for McCain.
On the other end of the scale, the three of four Ohio workers employed in sales, clerical, service and factory jobs made up less than 5 percent of the donor rolls.
An examination of Bush's complete listing donations indicated a skewed pattern holds true for small-amount donors. Of the Ohioans for Bush who gave under the $200 limit, 83 percent were business managers or professionals while sales employees accounted for 12 percent and clerical workers only 5 percent.
Not a single service or blue-collar donor was found.