Small donors: nice sound bite, not much money

It has become something of a cliché for political campaigns to tout, when announcing the month or quarter or year's fundraising totals, the large percentage of donations from small donors -- the implication being that having a large share of small donors translates into impressive grassroots support. To support this assertion, campaigns report the number or percentage of donations under some arbitrary dollar figure. For example, a Statehouse News Service article on Gubernatorial Candidate Charlie Baker's December fundraising includes a boast from Baker's campaign that “more than 50 percent of his contributions were $200 or less.”

But this line of reasoning obscures the basic fact that these small donations are not that significant up next to the amounts raised from higher dollar donors, and that the grassroots do not come close to big donors in terms of their importance to a campaign's total fundraising. Looking at the reported fundraising of each of the eight declared gubernatorial campaigns, the dollars from smaller donors add up to less than a quarter of the total amount raised by each campaign (Figure 1).


The reality is that, small donors aside, every campaign needs big checks to keep the lights on, staff paid, and ads running. Boasting aside, when we look at the whole of 2013, the Baker campaign raised just $174,000 from these small dollar donors, or 18 percent of his total haul for the year. Baker raised far more, $786,000, from those donating over $200.Baker is not alone in this regard. Every gubernatorial campaign shows a similarly lopsided ratio.

Another far more important source of funding for new or unknown candidates is self-funding. Four of the eight declared candidate for governor have written their campaigns a check for more than they have received from small donors.

It is true that a majority of the individual donations to four of the eight candidates were less than $200 (Figure 2). But it also true that, in each case, three-quarters or more of the candidates’ total fundraising came in larger chunks. It's not that the campaigns are lying, but they aren't telling the whole story.


So as campaign season gets underway and candidate after candidate boasts of the broad, grassroots support evident in their fundraising figures, just remember: small donors are just the tip of the campaign finance iceberg.

Note: these figures are based on current OCPF fundraising figures as of 1/6/2014.