Post Election Update---Distorted Democracy: Big Money and Dark Money in the 2012 Elections

For Immediate Release

New Analysis: Tiny Number of Wealthy Contributors Match Millions of Small Donors, Will Continue to Set Agenda In Washington

WASHINGTON – A new analysis of data through Election Day from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and other sources by OSPIRG Education Fund and Demos shows how big outside spenders drowned out small contributions in 2012: just 61 large donors to Super PACs giving on average $4.7 million each matched the $285.1 million in grassroots contributions from more than 1,425,500 small donors to presidential candidates.

“Because of the Supreme Court’s equation of money and speech, these wealthy special interests were able to amplify their voices to over 23,000 times the volume of the average small donor,” pointed out OSPIRG Associate Evan Preston.


Just 132 donors giving at least $1 million were responsible for 60.4% of the money Super PACs raised from individuals. In addition, $71.8 million of Super PAC money came from for-profit businesses.

Analysts say this is troubling because megadonors and corporations do not have the same priorities as the general public, and so the outsized influence of a small number of donors skews policy outcomes to the detriment of everyday Americans.  As one example, they point to survey data showing a discrepancy in how special interests and the general public believe our government should tackle major issues like health care and tax reform.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” said Demos Counsel Adam Lioz.  “And we know that special interests and most wealthy donors dance to different music than the majority of Americans.”

Last week citizens pushed back on our big-money system by passing two state-level and at least 172 city-level anti-Citizens United ballot initiatives and by electing several candidates in high-profile contests in spite of onslaughts of outside spending targeting their defeat.  But, analysts say that money still matters in politics.

“Some big spenders lost this week,” said OSPIRG Associate Evan Preston.  “But that won’t break Washington’s or Salem's addiction to campaign cash.”

“These outside spending groups act as megaphones for millionaires,” said Lioz. “Turning your megaphone up to eleven won’t mean you always get your way—but it sure increases your chances, and it sure makes it hard to hear the rest of us.”

Allowing corporations to spend in elections and the wealthy few to amplify their voices in the public square threatens the basic American value of political equality. Recent polling shows broad bipartisan outrage over political spending, and analysts point to several reasons that outrage should and will persist after last week’s elections:

·         A tiny number of wealthy individuals and corporate interests continue to set the agenda in Washington and in state capitals across America.

·         The outcome of down-ticket races are more easily swayed by injections of big money than high-profile presidential and senate contests where there is plenty of media coverage and general awareness of candidates and their positions.

·         Large donors and big spenders enjoy preferred access to and influence over winning candidates—giving them another direct chance to shape the agenda in Washington and state capitals across America, and undermining citizens’ confidence in our democracy.

·         The threat of massive outside spending is ever-present, shaping candidate behavior and forcing them to spend time on a high-stakes arms race rather than engaging voters or actually governing (in the case of incumbents).

The authors recommend specific policy solutions at both the state and federal level to overcome these obstacles and build a campaign finance system grounded in democratic principles.

This is the fourth release in the OSPIRG Education Fund and Demos series of analyses on the role of money in the 2012 elections.  Previous reports are available herehere, and here. Today’s release shows the overwhelming influence of a tiny number of wealthy donors.  The organizations plan to release a comprehensive analysis of election fundraising and spending in January 2013.


Co-written with USPIRG Democracy Advocate, Blair Bowie

OSPIRG is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.