Small Donor Solutions for Big Money: The 2014 Elections and Beyond

There’s no denying it. Big money in elections is getting bigger and the increased cost of elections is fueled by a shrinking handful of America’s wealthiest individuals. Many solution-oriented advocates believe one of the major paths to reversing this trend is investing in small donor-driven campaigns. This report reviews the status of this policy in light of 2014 election spending and the challenges of the post-Citizens United campaign finance era.

There’s some good news. State-level, broad “clean elections” models are still drawing in hundreds of candidates, with Connecticut leading the way. Our analysis shows federal small dollar matching systems like the Government by the People Act could also be effective, even in the imperfect world of growing outside spending. In fact, most House winners could have been competitively funded with this federal program. Finally, Americans are making small political donations on a large scale collectively.

Using data currently available, our initial analyses of 2014 elections surfaced these key findings:

  • Nearly 300 officials elected this fall in Connecticut, Maine, and Arizona ran with public grants after raising local, small donations.
  • A full 84 percent of incoming Connecticut state officials were elected under the state’s Citizens’ Election Program, including all six statewide winners.
  • Since 2010, Connecticut candidates have reduced their financial reliance on the wealthiest zip codes in the state and increased their reliance on donations from middle and low income areas.
  • A majority of winning legislative candidates participated in Maine’s Clean Elections program.
  • At the federal level, outside spending mattered tremendously in a small set of key races, but it is traditional candidate fundraising that most candidates still rely on.
  • The vast majority of 2014 House winners, had they used the Government by the People Act, would have had sufficient funds, if not more, to compete this past cycle, including in many of the races with outside spending.
  • Small donors, those donating $200 or less, gave a combined $1 billion to federal candidates, party committees, and political action committees (PACs) this cycle. While federal candidates can do more to reach small donors, Americans have shown their willingness, in large numbers, to engage politically through small contributions.

Download the full report.