Individuals and companies spent a record US$14 billion trying to get politicians elected in 2020, according to the latest estimate, more than double the $6.5 billion expended in 2016.
What do donors get for parting with all that cash?
Some of those who put large sums toward supporting a winner, such as President-elect Joe Biden, may be rewarded with government positions or the chance to meet with members of the administration. But most donors, no matter how much they give, get nothing more than the satisfaction of having someone who shares their values and priorities in a position of power.
I study the effects of campaign finance laws on the behavior of politicians and interest groups. In fact, there's surprisingly little evidence of quid pro quo corruption in American politics — that is, a direct exchange of money for some government reward.
Political scientists like me have drawn three basic conclusions from the actions of campaign donors over the years.
1. The problem isn't corruption — it's illicit favors
President Donald Trump raised the prospect of favoritism in the first presidential debate when he alleged without evidence that Biden does deals for Wall Street executives in exchange for campaign contributions and suggested he himself could raise a lot more money if he did the same.
It is certainly not hard to find anecdotal evidence of this kind of donor influence. Many people who become ambassadors or Cabinet officials, for instance, contributed money to the presidents who later appointed them. But then again, we can't be sure that they got these positions because of their contributions. And many other political appointees give little or nothing.
The most obvious instances of political corruption stand out because they are illegal — they consist of illicit favors like paying for a candidate's daughter's wedding or giving a candidate large sums of cash. These favors are illegal because they are personal gifts to these legislators, not contributions to their campaigns.
2. Small donors aren't always better
In fact, most campaign donors give very little and so have very little influence.
The latest campaign finance data show that about 45% of the $596 million that went to Trump's campaign committee came from small donors who gave $200 or less. For Biden, 39% of the $938 million he raised came from small donors.
Many of the year's most competitive Senate campaigns also drew extensive support from small donors as well.
Candidates often tout their small average donation size as a sign that they are not beholden to anyone. The problem, however, is that research has found that people who make these meager donations are more ideologically extreme than those who make large ones. That means that candidates of any party who successfully appeal to such voters could be more ideologically extreme as well.
Larger donors, then, can be a moderating force, even if these contributions are more likely to be self-interested.
3. Distorted priorities
But even large donors don't appear to get all that much for their money.
The majority of direct donations to both Trump and Biden were more than $200 but at or below $2,800, the federal limit. These large donors often do have contact with candidates, who typically solicit money from them directly at social events. As such, they have the opportunity to let candidates know why they are contributing.
The biggest donors give most of their contributions to super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don't coordinate what they are doing with the candidates themselves. As of Sept. 30, the latest data available, 97 people had given more than $3 million to candidates, parties or groups active in the 2020 election. The list includes billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg and Steven Spielberg.
While these donors certainly influence elections far more than regular donors, many of the most prominent super PAC funders have clearly stated ideological or philanthropic reasons for their contributions. In other words, they are not generally seeking or getting personal favors — legal or otherwise — in return for their cash.
Even often vilified political spenders such as Charles Koch or George Soros have made a compelling case that they have a philosophy that guides their giving. And most of their spending has not been on contributions to politicians but on advocacy for their point of view.
The real problem with large donations is something else. Studies of campaign contributors have consistently warned that the biggest danger of large contributions is not corruption or favoritism so much as the possibility that it distorts legislators' perceptions of public opinion. The more time a legislator spends courting large donors, the more likely he or she will assume that the priorities of very wealthy people are shared by other Americans. This is why Washington frequently has pitched battles over issues such as carried interest or inheritance taxes, which affect only a small number of the wealthiest Americans.
Campaign contributions may sometimes influence policy, but politicians will always have an incentive to do favors for major employers in places they represent, for influential local lawmakers or for other people who support their candidacy. That's not corruption; that's just democracy.