During the 2012 presidential campaign, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin famously complained that the wealthy have “insufficient influence” in politics, which is kind of like saying that a crocodile needs even more teeth, when the 24 it has do just fine, thank you very much. But as money pours into the 2016 campaign – where the issue of income inequality has been a powerful touchstone –the wealthy might be feeling a bit more empowered. No longer are donors bound by the strict contribution limits of just two years ago, when a mere $32,400 was the maximum amount you could annually contribute to either the Democratic or Republican national committee. Under new rules, that amount, which inflation pushed to $33,400, has increased tenfold: to $334,000. But wait. Among all the party outlets now available for contributions, a single donor over the course of the two-year election cycle can actually give more than $1.6 million. A couple, should they be feeling similarly generous, could write checks totaling more than $3 million.
“The overall impact has meant more money for parties . . . but it also means wealthy people get a bigger role in our elections – and they get access and influence to politicians at the convention, at donor retreats and at fundraisers,” said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Every Voice, an advocacy group whose aim is to reduce the role of big contributors in politics. “Access regular voters could only dream of.”
Consider: Four years ago, more than a quarter of the disclosed election contributions came from just slightly more than 31,000people across the entire U.S., according to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government and politics watchdog organization. That’s one-ten-thousandth of the population.
In 2016, that tiny niche of well-heeled donors can give even more. Small donors do get some voice in politics. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has raised $183 million, with about two-thirds coming from small contributions, according to Open Secrets, a campaign-finance watchdog group. The Sanders campaign has said the average donation is $27. But big donors often speak more loudly – and directly to the establishment.