Inside the donor network: Studies unravel the towering influence money has over politics — on the right and left

Exclusive: Reports explore how donor groups grow and work strategically to achieve political objectives

Published June 18, 2016 10:30AM (EDT)

Charles Koch, David Koch   (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Salon)
Charles Koch, David Koch (MSNBC/AP/Evan Agostini/Salon)

Media outlets often focus the conversation about money in politics on individual donors, making Sheldon Adelson, Charles and David Koch, and George Soros household names. These individual donors have immense influence on politics throughout the country: The top 10 largest individual donors to federal elections in 2014 contributed over $150 million. This amount constitutes only a small share of almost $3 billion in total federal campaign donations for 2014, leaving billions unaccounted for without even mentioning contributions to local races and advocacy groups. While many have argued that Trump’s success shows that money simply doesn’t matter in politics, an increasingly large political science literature, including new studies obtained exclusively by Salon, shows that money still has huge influence over politics.

Big Donors Are Teaming Up

A new paper from Harvard sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol prepared for a Scholar’s Strategy Network workshop and obtained exclusively by Salon explores the influence of donor consortia (groups of donors that meet regularly to coordinate spending) on politics. She compares the activities of Koch network on the far right and Democracy Alliance on the progressive left. Her findings reveal the increasing importance of these consortia as they grow and work strategically to achieve political objectives.

Examining two of the largest networks, the Koch network on the right and the Democracy Alliance on the left, Skocpol identifies a number of attributes defining a donor consortium. The first is continual giving, where members of each network contribute tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to the network and its partners. This long-term focus supports these networks’ goals, which are temporally and substantively broad. Donor consortia think beyond election cycles and thus can undertake efforts, like supporting cultural shifts, which take place over a long period of time. They focus on a wide array of endeavors and policies, supporting everything from academics to advocates to political candidates who support work that comports with the network ideology. Finally, there is a major social element of these networks, including a number of in-person meetings where donors can attend sessions with political operatives, members of the media, advocates, and academics, creating a community of like-minded individuals working to overcome the same political challenges. (One of us, Sean, has previously discussed the political science research on the Koch Network).

While individual donors are the most visible mechanism for money in politics, donor consortia are increasingly important. Whenever journalists criticize the Koch Network, conservatives cry “Soros,” and yet as the graph below shows, the full weight of the Democracy Alliance is below that of the Koch network, and while the number of donors in the Democracy Alliance has remained stable, the Koch Network has increased dramatically.


In addition, Skocpol shows that the Koch Network has increased its fundraising capacity dramatically, far more quickly than the Democracy Alliance. The result is that the difference in power between the two is only growing (the chart doesn’t include Koch spending in 2016, reported to be nearly $1 billion).  


Skocpol also explores the occupations of donors and finds that finance, insurance and real estate account for a large share of donors on both the left and right. She finds that mining, retail and manufacturing are more common on the right. However, professionals, scientists, information technology (Silicon Valley) and entertainment are more common on the left. Unsurprisingly, there were no workers in either donor consortia (as we’ve discussed previously, workers are underrepresented across the political system).


As the chart below shows, the Koch donations tend to be far more centralized. While Democracy Alliance funds 173 different progressive organizations, the Koch Network focuses on a core group of 34.  By focusing on a smaller number of organizations, the Koch network can offer even more power to these organizations in accomplishing their objectives. Rather than endorse candidates, the network encourages politicians compete to determine the best spokesperson for the organization’s agenda.

Skocpol’s work shows the growing power of organized donors over the American political system. In a paper with Alex Hertel-Fernandez, Skocpol notes the influence of Koch-funded organizations. They find that public opinion has little impact on the passage of anti-union right-to-work laws, while the presence of a paid Americans For Prosperity (a Koch-backed organization) state director did (see Table 1). They find, quite stunningly, that a paid AFP state director (a measure of mobilization) increases the probability of a right-to work law by almost 30 percentage points, equal to the impact of partisan control of government. Big donors are increasingly powerful in shaping policy at the state level, in some cases even more powerful than traditional lobbying forces like the Chamber of Commerce.


In a new study, Jennifer Victor and Gregory Koger suggest that lobbyists create networks, and that money serves to solidify friendships that last over the long-term. To explore the impact, Victor and Koger explore the voting patterns of politicians that both received donations from the same lobbyist. The authors find, first of all, that legislators “who share committee assignments, district political affiliation, state, gender and seniority are more likely to vote the same way.” They find that members who are at risk of losing elections vote more closely to the ideology of their districts (which, combined with recent research by political scientists John Henderson and John Brooks suggests that increased turnout could affect policy by making districts more competitive). However, while these relationships have previously been studied the authors are the first to explore the relationship between shared lobbyist contributions and co-voting. They find that in the House, “legislators who are more strongly connected by lobbyist donors are more likely to vote the same way,” even after controlling for the factors discussed above. In the Senate, the relationship holds for politicians who are running for re-election, but not off cycle. This could be because House members are constantly running for re-election, while Senators have longer terms. Their research shows the subtle ways that lobbyists and networks can influence voting.

How The Donor Class Sets The Discourse

In another working paper presented at the Scholars Strategy Network workshop conference, political scientists and leading experts on inequality and democracy, Peter K. Enns, Nathan J Kelly, Jana Morgan and Christopher Witko explore how the donor class influences the agenda. In their paper, obtained exclusively by Salon, they find that, “when individual MCs [members of congress] become more reliant on the resources of upper income interests they subsequently discuss the problems prioritized by these interests more.” They also find that when members of congress become more reliant on money from labor-based sources, they are more likely to discuss the issue of inequality. This suggests that the powerful can shape the political agenda. Blocking progressive policies before when they come up for a vote, or keeping them off the agenda entirely, is an effective, and little-studied mechanism by which money influences politics.

Voters Can Fight Back
But not all recent political science should make us mourn for democracy. In a study published in the journal Perspectives On Politics, Christopher Witko, Nathan Kelly and William Franko offer new evidence that voter turnout can dramatically reshape American politics. They find that public opinion is mediated through class bias in voter turnout. As the charts below show, where class bias is low, liberal public opinion translates into more economic policy liberalism and left government power. This, combined with a large literature which one of us (Sean) discussed in the recent Demos report Why Voting Matters, suggests that increasing turnout, particularly among low-income people, people of color and young people, could reduce the power of the donor class.


Worryingly, political scientists Adam Levine of Cornell and Robyn L. Stiles of LSU find in some cases, rhetoric raising concerns about money in politics can be demobilizing. They find that when respondents are presented with frames about money in politics that emphasize  these respondents are more likely to be concerned about the influence of money in politics, but are less likely to say they will vote. This suggests that the rising awareness about the power of big money and donors could lead people to become less engage in politics. Levine tells Salon, “solving problems is a lot more difficult when the mere fact of talking about them makes them worse.” Voting is the best way to defeat the donor class. But their very power makes it less likely people will fight back. One mechanism is to increase turnout would be automatic voter registration and other mechanisms to make voting more easy. A new study by the Public Policy Institute of California finds that the state’s new automated voter registration law would increase the share of registered voters in the state that are young, Latino, low-income and not college educated. But registered Americans need to be mobilized. The one frame that Levine finds leads to relatively high levels of turnout is “be heard this election.”

By Sean McElwee

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

MORE FROM Sean McElwee

By Roberta Barnett

Roberta Barnett is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @rbtastic

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