A dozen megadonors and their spouses contributed a combined $3.4 billion to federal candidates and political groups since 2009, accounting for nearly 1 out of every 13 dollars raised, according to a new report.
The report, produced by Issue One, a nonpartisan group that seeks to reduce the influence of money in politics, shows the top 12 donors split equally between six Democrats and six Republicans. The list includes multiple Wall Street billionaires and investors, a Facebook co-founder, a shipping magnate and the heir to a family fortune dating back to the Gilded Age.
The study quantifies the intensifying concentration and increasing role of the super rich in American politics following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.
“This is a stark illustration of our broken campaign finance system,” said Nick Penniman, founder and CEO of Issue One. “Today, a handful of megadonors wield outsized influence in our politics.” Penniman called on Congress “to pass sweeping reforms to create a democracy that works for everyone.”
The growing influence of multimillion-dollar megadonors has been accompanied by another, competing trend: a surge of small online donations to politicians of both parties. Those contributions — in $5, $10 and $25 increments — have given Democrats and Republicans an alternate source of money beyond the super rich.
Still, the study found that the top 100 ZIP codes for political giving in the United States, which hold less than 1% of the total population, accounted for roughly 20% of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised between January 2009 and December 2020. The study used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles figures from the Federal Election Commission.
Some of the top ZIP codes for giving were not even populated by any people at all; instead, they were primarily associated with skyscrapers and post office boxes that were used as business addresses by the wealthy.
The single biggest spender on federal campaigns from 2009 to 2020 was Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who spent $1.4 billion. Of that, $1 billion went toward his own failed campaign for president in 2020 and $314 million went to other federal candidates, super PACs and political groups.
He is the only donor to spend more than $1 billion. The No. 2 contributor is another Democrat, Tom Steyer, who, like Bloomberg, lost his bid for president in 2020. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, have spent $653 million, with more than half going toward his own presidential campaign and $311 million to other federal candidates and committees.
The report does not include giving to state-level campaigns or politically connected nonprofit groups, which can often remain undisclosed.
The largest Republican contributor was Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, and his wife, Miriam Adelson, a physician. The Adelsons have contributed $523 million to Republican candidates and committees since 2009.
Sheldon Adelson’s death in January 2021, at 87, leaves a potential major shortfall for Republicans who have come to rely upon his largesse. Republican operatives have privately fretted that while Miriam Adelson has been politically engaged, she may not have the same appetite for political giving as her late husband.
The report said that all 12 top donors were white and that the top 100 ZIP codes for donations were “typically both more white and more affluent” than the nation as a whole.
The other top contributors among Republicans were Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein ($138 million), founders of Uline shipping; Ken Griffin ($107 million), the investor and founder of Citadel LLC; Patricia and Timothy Mellon ($70 million), an heir to the Mellon fortune and chairman of Pan Am Systems; Marlene and Joe Ricketts ($66 million), founder of T.D. Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs; and Paul Singer ($63 million), an investor and founder of Elliott Management.
Among Democrats, the other biggest donors were Donald Sussman ($98 million), founder of Paloma Funds; Jim Simons ($93 million), founder of Renaissance Technologies, and his wife, Marilyn; Fred Eychaner ($92 million), a media mogul; and Dustin Moskovitz ($83 million), co-founder of Facebook, and his wife, Cari Tuna.