Will small-donor programs be able to counter the surge of rich donors and democratize campaign finance?
Probably not. Reducing the influence of big donors has always been the goal of small-donor programs. But very few campaigns—very few winning campaigns, anyway—have ever been funded mostly by small contributions. Which raises the question: if so many people think small money is such a good thing, why have we not seen more of it? It is not for lack of trying. Small-donor programs go back to 1908.
Burned by scandals that revealed their dependence on big contributions from Wall Street, both parties in the 1908 presidential election launched serious attempts to attract small donors. This was not a one-time event, either, something they abandoned when the scandal faded from popular memory. Instead, the parties made the programs a regular part of their campaign fundraising.5
Big donors kept giving, too, of course, and kept providing a disproportionate share of campaign funds, as they had done for decades. But their share did not rise to alarming levels until 1972, when rich donors wrote fatter checks than they had done since the Gilded Age. Those fat checks became part of Watergate, and they were what revived the call to curb big donors by encouraging small ones. Congress responded by amending the FECA to impose strict contribution limits and require presidential candidates to get small donations to qualify for public funds. And that seemed to work for a while: "The role and power of the 'fat cats' in the process has been diminished," said RNC chair Richard Richards in 1981.6
The fat cats' role did not stay diminished, though. It expanded again in the era of soft money, which Congress banned by passing the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002. The BCRA was hailed as another democratizing breakthrough when the parties responded by raising unexpectedly large sums of hard money from small donors. And now that the fat cats are back yet again, so too are calls for reducing their role by increasing the number of small donors.7
The parties probably knew as early as the 1920s that small donors were important mainly for public relations. By reporting large numbers of small donors, the parties showed that they were not dependent on a small number of big ones. But small donors were never going to provide enough money to put them at the center of campaign fundraising.
What has changed since 2010 is the idea that they can matter to the bottom line and should be put at the center of campaign fundraising. Implicit in this idea is the belief that a large enough number of small donors can reduce the political influence of big donors.
Small donors, though, need much more encouragement than big donors, and federal, state, and local programs have had varying degrees of success in recruiting them. New York City's six-to-one matching program has been among the most successful, bringing tens of thousands of new, small donors into electoral politics. The new donors are also more diverse, by race, ethnicity, education, and income, than traditional donors.
The New York program's success showed up in the numbers: more than half of the donors in the 2013 election were giving for the first time, and two-thirds of them made small contributions. But a highly skewed distribution of big and small donors showed up even here. The two-thirds of donors who made small contributions provided only a little more than 10 percent of the total amount contributed. That means 90 percent of the total came from just one-third of the donors. And that was with a low contribution limit of $4,950.8
An important measure of success for small-donor programs is, or should be, whether donors give more than once. Big donors give in election after election because they are politically involved or have business or social connections to those who are. If small donors are going to give as regularly as big ones, they too will have to become politically involved. That is something that tax credits and matching funds by themselves cannot do.
Politics requires organization. Small-donor programs are organized to increase the number of small donors, but not to organize the donors themselves. Large numbers of unorganized donors are a statistic, not a political force with the kind of voice in Washington that would justify the term "democratization." People have been chasing the dream of a small-donor democracy for more than 100 years, and it still eludes us.