Small-dollar donors have been celebrated in this election. Senator Bernie Sanders mounted a surprisingly competitive primary campaign fueled by their contributions and promoted his reliance on their dollars as a signature campaign issue. Donald Trump, too, has attracted legions of small-dollar contributors: Although major Republican donors appear divided over Trump, he has had more success with small donors than any prior Republican nominee, raising as much as $100 million from individuals giving less than $200 each. But with Sanders’ campaign having ended in defeat, and Trump’s nearing its conclusion, does 2016 really herald a new age of small-donor influence in politics? Pundits have argued that the possibility of using the internet to rely on millions of small donors means that campaign donation limits are irrelevant—that candidates’ ability to depend on readily available small-donor money means we don’t need to cap the biggest donations to restore balance to our political system. But a historical review of data describing all the money individuals have put into the campaign-finance system—whether to candidates, parties, or other political committees like super PACs—suggests this analysis is wrong. Despite growth in the number of small donors over time, the money they give has made up a smaller and smaller share of total individual contributions over the last two decades. The power of the internet is no match for the unlimited giving allowed by today’s lax campaign-finance rules.
While the success of Trump and Sanders with small donors may seem new, it is actually the culmination of more than a decade of advances in online fundraising. In 2004, Howard Dean’s success in raising small online donations led to claims that internet strategies, such as email solicitations, were “reinventing campaign fundraising.” By the end of that election, George W. Bush’s army of one million small donors was 10 times bigger than contributor rolls of the major-party candidates of 1996 and 2000. In 2008, the press lauded Barack Obama’s “startling success” at “ushering in a new digital era.” Then Obama’s 2012 campaign obliterated previous records, with 3.6 million people giving small amounts.
But this obscures the broader trend: The truth is that small donors aren’t as important to campaigns as they were before internet fundraising became popular, while the very biggest donors have become significantly more prominent in recent years.
Throughout the 1990s, small donors giving $350 or less—in 2016 dollars—provided more than half of all the individual contributions to candidates, parties, and other political committees over the entire course of each election cycle. In 2004, the year many commentators began to talk about the promise of the internet, such donors were responsible for 41 percent of all individual contributions. This year, through the end of the second quarter, they were responsible for just 34 percent of the total. And while large donors giving more than $100,000 supplied less than 10 percent of the money throughout the 1990s, by the end of this June that relative handful of donors provided a whopping 23 percent of all individual contributions.