The GOP debate subplot that everyone should be paying attention to

Much GOP primary analysis has rightly focused on the overt racism of the campaigns. But another theme jumps out too

Published December 15, 2015 9:20PM (EST)

  (AP/Mark Lennihan/John Minchillo/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Mark Lennihan/John Minchillo/Photo montage by Salon)

This election cycle has dominated by a populist backlash in the GOP between the Republican elite donor class and the activist base. While many have suggested that immigration lies at the heart of this story, new evidence suggests that at the core of the debate may actually be deep rifts on economic policy. As GOP candidates prepare to take the stage tonight, it remains to be seen whether they will adopt the policies of the wealthy Republican donor class or average Republicans. (Hint: probably the donors.)

While it’s certain that resentment about race and immigration are motivating Trump’s supporters, there is reason to believe that the donor class’s economic agenda is alienating as well. To explore how donors differ from non-donors, Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at University of Massachusetts Amherst and an expert in campaign finance, provided me data from the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which had 32,800 respondents. While the 2008 survey is a bit older, CCES uses questions that come up for roll-call votes, and sadly the last time such questions were available was 2008. CCES is unique in that it has a relatively large sample of large donors, in this case 324 Republican donors who gave more than $1,000 and 459 Democrats who did the same.

The five questions I examined where all roll call vote questions, which ask respondents whether they would vote in favor or against legislation. I examined support for the following policies:

  • Increase Minimum Wage: Increase Minimum Wage from $5.15 to $7.25
  • Health Insurance Program for Children: Fund a $20 billion program to provide health insurance for children in families earning less that $43,000
  • Federal Assistance for Housing Crisis: Federal assistance for homeowners facing foreclosure and large lending institutions at risk of failing
  • Extend NAFTA: Extend the North American Free trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include Peru and Columbia
  • Bank Bailout: U. S. Government’s $700 Billion Bank Bailout Plan

The first thing that stands out is that when examining donors who gave more than $1,000 compared to non-donors is that they are more economically conservative than non-donors. Donors who gave more than $1,000 were 10 points less likely to support an increased minimum wage (84 percent to 74 percent) and 5 points less likely to support a health insurance program for low-income children (76 percent to 71 percent). They were also more supportive of the bank bailouts (27 percent to 35 percent).


However, these gaps become far larger when we explore the differences between major Republican donors (those giving more than $1,000) and non-donors. For instance, a whopping 63 percent of Republican non-donors support a higher minimum wage, compared to only 32 percent of donors who gave more than $1,000. In addition, 46 percent of Republican non-donors support a funding a program to provide health insurance to poor children, compared with 26 percent of big donors (other research has shown gaps between donors and non-donors on healthcare). Big donors are far more supportive of a NAFTA expansion, while non-donors were split nearly half and half. Finally, non-donors were more likely to support housing assistance, though there were no large differences on bank bailouts. These data suggest that a key divide between GOP voters and donors are on issues related to the economy and redistribution. But elites have systematically failed to address these concerns, preferring instead massive upward redistribution.


Among Democrats the biggest gaps were the NAFTA extension (50 percent of non-donors supported extending NAFTA, compared to 32 percent of donors who gave more than $1,000) and the bank bailouts (34 percent of non-donors in support compared to 48 percent of donors giving more than $1,000).

These findings are in line with other data suggesting that the wealthy have differing priorities from average Americans (the donor class is overwhelmingly more wealthy than average Americans). Political scientist Martin Gilens, whose work has examined in depth opinion differences between the rich and middle class, finds that redistribution is one of the areas with the most disagreement. This lines up with the results of a survey of wealthy respondents by political scientists Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, who find, “to a much greater extent than the general public—the wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth.” They also find deep gaps on policies related to healthcare (see chart).


Donors have differing preferences from the general population, and their power is only increasing in the wake of Citizens United and other court cases that have made it easier for donors to influence elections. In 2012, Cooperative Congressional Election Study data indicate that 24 percent of Americans gave money, but only 6 percent gave more than $200. On average, members of the general public gave $336. However, FEC data show that among the richest 100 billionaires, the average donation was $74,982. That means that the average donation by one of the super rich is 223 times more than the donation of the general public.


Tonight’s debate may be broadcast nationally, but candidates have so far dedicated themselves to an agenda that is supported by, and benefits, a small sliver of the population. As long as politicians respond to donors, Trump-mania and other populist movements will remain inflamed.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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