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New analysis: Small donors have a big voice in 2020 presidential race

Study shows contributions under $200 lead way in fundraising
For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON --  In a new analysis of 2020 presidential candidates’ fundraising totals, U.S. PIRG found that small donations -- contributions of less than $200 -- are the single largest source of cash received so far in this election season. Small donor totals out-paced large donations, PACs, party committees, transfers and self-funding, according to the study of third quarter filings by candidates to the Federal Election Commission. 


“For years, it has been impossible to run for office without relying heavily on large dollar donations. This meant that the small number of people with that kind of money, or access to it, had a disproportionate influence over who could even run for office,” said Joe Ready, director of U.S. PIRG’s Democracy for the People Program. “While big money still has significant influence, the data from the 2020 candidates show that small donors now also have a significant voice.” 


Other findings include:

  • Compared to the 2016 election at this point, candidates have raised nearly $100 million more in small donor contributions in this cycle

  • Six candidates have raised more than 50 percent of their funds from small donations. (Sen. Bernard Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Julian Castro and Marianne Williamson)

  • Six candidates have raised more than $10 million from small donations. (President Donald Trump, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Biden and Sen. Warren)


“The significant growth in small donor participation is a good sign for the health of our democracy,” Ready said. “Our system works best when everyone can participate in all phases of our democracy, not just big moneyed interests.” 


These findings come at a time when running for office has never been more expensive. The 2016 federal election cycle was the most expensive in U.S. history, costing nearly $6.5 billion for all races. 


“Historically, unless candidates are independently wealthy, they’ve often needed to court contributions from megadonors or corporate interests to be competitive in their races,” Ready said. “That gave a very small number of people massive influence on who runs for office well before anyone gets a chance to cast a ballot. That’s not how our democracy is supposed to work and the hope is this trend will move America in a different direction. Candidates should be elected because of the quality of their ideas and their ability to garner public support, not their ability to raise big money.” 


U.S. PIRG is working to reduce the influence of big money by encouraging the active participation of small donors in our federal, state and local elections. The organization advocates for policies such as tax credits and matching public funds for small political contributions.The goal is to encourage more participation, ensuring that candidates are accountable to, and dependent on, the people—not moneyed interests.


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U.S. PIRG is the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. PIRGs are non-profit, non-partisan public interest advocacy organizations that stand up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society.

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