Presidential candidates raise big cash fast — but from whom? And why?

A magician who seeks to retain his (or her) illusion for — and thus control over — the audience uses sleight of hand and misdirection. In the modern political era that began in earnest with the 1994 mid-term elections, a Republican majority in Congress mastered that art using the textbooks authored by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Although that majority has evaporated, the Democratic successors have continued to play three-card monte with the best of the GOP.

Terry Schiavo. Abortion. Stem-cell research. Gay marriage. Immigration reform. Osama. The “war on terror.” The Iraq war. Corruption (Cunningham and Jefferson et al.) Ethics reform. Sex scandals (the House pages and Vitter). Scooter Libby and Plamegate. Global warming (er, climate change). The dancing denials of Alberto Gonzalez. Vice President Cheney’s non-executive executive branch. Impeach the bastards, etc.

These are serious subjects, of course, or so intones The Media (a.k.a. the magician’s assistant), charged with telling the audience why it ought to be worried about them and why it ought to vote for The Right — or The Left — to make sure that Subject X doesn’t happen again. It doesn’t matter which party’s talking; each has a tall tale it sells, er, tells to the audience.

Nowhere is a political magician and his (or her) assistant more artful than during a presidential election campaign. How do does he (or she) misdirect the audience? First, the sleight of hand: The magician (er, presidential candidate) stridently pontificates (but only in front of a TV camera or on YouTube) about the scary stuff mentioned above. Second, the magician’s assistant turns the campaign into a horse race with money as the scorecard. And throw in a little glamour for misdirection.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Tell the audience which magician (er, presidential candidate) raised how much money. Divide the candidates in each party into “tiers” solely on the basis of the total of their campaign contributions. But never, ever tell the audience where the contributions came from — because that’s where the illusion falters and truth takes hold.

So here we are, freshly informed about the second-quarter of presidential candidates’ fundraising. So far this year, the presidential candidates have collectively raised more than $265 million. The press has told us Candidate X raised more than Candidate Y, but Candidate Z still has an overall money lead. And Candidate A must be faltering because fundraising is down. We learn about burn rates; we learn about how much consultants to candidates are paid.

But how often does the press explain the sources of candidates’ contributions — in detail? Rarely. How often does the press show detailed patterns in political giving over time rather than for one election season? Rarely.

That’s because the real story is not one the magician or his (or her) assistant wants told. And that’s because the money that supports the magician and his (or her) assistant comes predominantly from those industries associated with the creation of wealth, the maintenance of wealth and the use of wealth.

It’s much easier (and more profitable) for the magician’s assistant to flaunt a story that’s based on ideological, personal or faith-based conflict that can be told and retold endlessly. That’s the sleight-of-hand part. Makes money for the media, too.

You pro-choice? You pro-life? In this modern political era, it doesn’t really matter to a politician seeking money to be elected and remain elected.

The signal-to-noise ratio generated in the press by the abortion issue — from both pro-choice and pro-life perspectives — is significant only in the market for which side can out-shout or out-litigate the other. But it carries little weight in campaign contributions and is far outweighed by the big money donated by the wealth industries.

Since 1990, campaign contributions by the pro-life movement have amounted to only $5.3 million, 79th out of the 122 “industries” charted by the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s nearly two-thirds less than the $14.5 million given by the pro-choice movement, which only ranks 74th.

And the diversionary glamour? Movie mogul David Geffen scrapes up $1.3 million in campaign cash for Barack Obama in Beverly Hills with Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Geffen badmouths the Clintons. Hillary gets even by hitting up Hollywood for $2.6 million.

Front-page stuff. CNN and Fox News ratings grabber. Lots of ink and air time. But it’s pure political theater.

The magician’s happy even though the money’s chicken feed. The TV, movie and music industries only rank No. 8 on the list of all-time industry campaign contributors since 1990 at $201 million. Yes, a hefty amount, but the media-directed gaze on Hollywood handouts to politicians diverts the audience’s attention from who’s giving the really big money to politicians — and why.

That money comes from five principal industries that would rather have the spotlight on Hollywood than on them.

Since 1990, lawyers and law firms have made nearly $781 million in campaign contributions, ranking them No. 1. (Adding in the lobbyists makes that nearly $900 million.)

At No. 2 are the retired folks who want to protect what they spent a lifetime accumulating. The AARP faction has made nearly $662 million in campaign contributions since 1990.

At No. 3 is the securities and investments industry (which the AARP set leans on to protect its wealth), which has made $463 million in campaign contributions since 1990.

At No. 4: Real estate at $456 million.

At No. 5: Health professionals at nearly $360 million.

No matter what candidate in which party, the dominant donors are lawyers and law firms, the retired, the securities and investments industry, real estate interests and health professionals.

That brings us to the 2008 presidential campaign. With the help of the Center for Responsive Politics, Scholars & Rogues has analyzed the top 20 donor industries for each candidate. Below are the candidates, the total donated by their top 20 industries and the percentage of that total given by lawyers and law firms, retired, real estate, securities and investments and health professionals combined.

The Republicans:

• Tom Tancredo: $336,706; 67.4 percent.
• John McCain: $10,906,629; 65.8 percent.
• Rudy Giuliani: $15,910,911; 60 percent.
• Mitt Romney: $18,757,057; 58.4 percent.
• Sam Brownback: $541,444; 55 percent.
• Ron Paul: $824,082; 54 percent.
• Mike Huckabee: $593,744; 50.8 percent.
• Tommy Thompson: $365,005; 45.5 percent.
• Duncan Hunter: $308,400; 31.9 percent.

The Democrats:

• John Edwards: $12,807,203: 69.8 percent.
• Joe Biden: $3,708,986; 66.3 percent.
• Hillary Clinton: $27,952,027; 57.3 percent.
• Barack Obama: $24,820,803; 56 percent.
• Chris Dodd: $7,482,152; 52.5 percent.
• Bill Richardson: $6,902,574; 44.6 percent.
• Dennis Kucinich: $185,596; 42.7 percent.
(No, I didn’t forget Mike Gravel. Why bother?)

Most of the candidates’ money comes from a few sectors representing mainly the rich and powerful who wish to remain so. (Sen. Obama may brag about his 258,000 individual donors, but that’s pure misdirection.)

The same pattern of principal campaign contributors since 1990 pertains to Congress as well. Here’s how the top five rank:

In the 2006 election cycle: Lawyers and law firms ($60 million) followed by the retired sector ($42 million) followed by real estate ($35 million) followed by health professionals ($34.5 million) and securities and investments ($28.2 million).

In the 2004 election cycle: lawyers and law firms ($86.6 million); retired ($50.2 million); real estate ($35 million); health professionals ($30.3 million); securities & investments ($30.3 million).

In the 2002 election cycle: lawyers and law firms ($35.6 million); health professionals ($22 million); retired ($20.1 million); real estate ($19.1 million); securities and investments ($15.6 million).

In the 2000 election cycle: lawyers and law firms ($31.4 million); retired ($23.8 million); health professionals ($20 million); real estate ($18.5 million) and securities and investments ($18 million).

Want to separate the GOP from the Democrats? For the GOP: 1) retired, 2) lawyers and law firms, 3) health professionals, 4) securities and investments and 5) real estate. For the Democrats: 1) lawyers and law firms, 2) health professionals, 3) real estate, 7) securities and investments and 9) retired. Numbers 4, 5, 6 and 8 are unions (as expected).

What does this pattern of political giving mean?

My last interview as a journalist was with Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee for president. I asked him after a press conference to comment on his opponent’s charge that he was “soft on defense.”

He replied (I’m paraphrasing my 19-year-old notes): Denny, you just don’t get it. He’ll spend a little more money on this weapons system, I’ll spend a little more on that one. Same in education. He’ll do more with vouchers; I’ll do more with direct aid to states. There’s very little difference between (George H.W.) Bush and myself. We try to paint ourselves as far apart, and so does the press. But really, because of so many factors, we’re not that different. Print that if you like, but no one will believe it. (I was young and naive back then; I didn’t print it.)

One of those factors is posturing by candidates to the industries discussed here. Candidates do this because these industries represent massive amounts of money — and money’s needed to pay for all that sleight of hand and misdirection undertaken by campaigns in their TV ads. The industries, therefore, get political capital to be spent on their needs after one of these candidates is elected president. So what do candidates tell the principals in these industries that they don’t tell us? What’s the quid pro quo?

Oh, others can quibble about the subtle differences between these industrial donors for Democrats and those for Republicans. But inspect the money closely. These industries are donating big money to most of the presidential contenders. Frankly, they don’t care who wins as long as they’ve covered the bet.

In that kind of atmosphere in this modern political era, ask this question: What will still not be possible?

• Will a fundamental overhaul of the American educational system be possible, including how it’s funded, what its goals should be, and how it ought to be assessed?

• Will a fundamental shift in the moral basis on which this nation relates to other nations be possible? Will significant changes be possible in how this nation approaches the concepts of foreign aid, international investment and national and international security? In other words, would we be able to learn to play better with the other children?

• Will the fundamental roles in corporate governance be reversed — through government regulation and intervention if need be — from the primacy of finance over long-term productivity (you know, back to what it used to be?)? Will it be possible to reverse the dramatic increase of compensation differences between those at the CEO level and those at the worker bee level?

• Will a better, more affordable, more accessible, more efficiently run health-care system emerge?

• Will the issues surrounding the ever-present conflict between environmental degradation and economic growth obtain a fair, full public hearing and agreeable resolution?

Issues such as these will define us as a nation in the decades to come. But the fine print of writing that definition, at the moment, rests in the checkbooks of those who are principally underwriting — and limiting — political choice in this country.

Reconsider the poll ratings of the president and Congress. Will the next president and Congress enjoy substantially improved numbers? Won’t that be dependent on whether we can come to trust our government and its actions in and on our behalf? Will that be possible in this modern political era dominated financially by so few?

Follow the money, people. It’s boring and mind-numbing labor, but the magician and the magician’s assistant count on that to keep us from doing it.

(The numbers used in this piece are “based on contributions of $200 or more from PACs and individuals to federal candidates and from PAC, soft money and individual donors to political parties, as reported to the Federal Election Commission” and aggregated by the center. A center spokesman noted that it “uses a hierarchical coding system to classify contributions by industry and interest group. At the top level are 13 sectors — 10 covering business groups and one each for “labor,” “ideology / single issues,” and “other.” At the middle level are about 100 industries, more detailed than the broad sectors. At the most detailed level are more than 400 categories.” It is the “middle” level being discussed here.)

xpost: 5th Estate

33 replies »

  1. Tell me who’s paying for the liquor those politicians drink and I will tell you about the laws they pass.

  2. Beautiful, if somewhat depressing for someone like me who is fighting to get these damnable companies out of the political funding game.

    I expected a long fight. This just gives me a more realistic perspective on the length and difficulty of that fight, and of my chances of success.

  3. You’re not called “50/50” nation for nothing. Of course, it looks like the lawyers run the place 😉

    Sigh, so much for that tort reform. And sorting out the disaster of Medicare.

  4. Actually, it’s not the lawyer that run the show. The business community merely rents them.

  5. Tort lawyers? Ambulance chasers? I think the law industry is a large enough business on its own to afford its own bills.

  6. Denny,

    You are like unto a God to me. Incredible work, a depressing result, and a reminder that when you cut away all of the ideology, posturing, and Kabuki theatre, politics is about the money. Always has been–but does it always have to be?

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  8. Very good article and I’m impressed by the work it took.

    However I’d very much like to see the breakdown of which of the five industries gave how much to each. For example, I’d /expect/ legal to give a pile to Edwards, but I don’t know it did. If you could do a followup post with that info, I’d appreciate it.

  9. How may types of business persons are there? Let’s see, there are multinational CEOs making about 400 times as much as workers. There are small business owners. Independent insurance agents are businessmen or women. So are medical practices and pharmacies. Even the endangered small farmer is a businessperson. After all, few farmers grow crops for fun.

    In fact, if the types of business interests are consolidated in the typical state legislature, their combined strength outnumbers lawyers. And, oh, by the way, law practices are actually a type of business. That is why lawyers are listed in the Yellow Pages or in the business section of the typical telephone directory.

  10. Thanks for this excellent breakdown of why, as Randy Newman would say, “it’s money that matters,” Denny. Isn’t it amazing to think that the money that runs our political system comes mainly from old farts and lawyers? 😉

  11. Thanks for this truly definitive article, Dr. Denny. The public, ground down by cynicism, just assumes ’twas ever thus. But it wasn’t.

    Campaign finance reform is the second biggest issue in the country (after nuclear disarmament). Without it, we’re just a pale imitation of a democracy. Nothing will substantially change.

  12. Thanks, Russ.

    I’ve written on campaign finance reform for years, but I’m giving up. Instead, I plan to push for far greater transparency in where the money comes from and how it’s spent.

    I’d like to see public financing (see Maine’s experience), but the money’s just too big now, the campaigns too long, and the stakes too high for that to happen.

  13. Djerrid,

    Take a harder look at the Times link you offered (and thanks for that).

    It just doesn’t drill deeply enough in the FEC data. Any reporter allowed to spend just one day on what I did, using easily available data from and the FEC, could use Excel to find what I did.

    Fancy graphics doesn’t always mean sharply analytical graphics.

    Thanks for your comment.

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  15. Dr. Denny,
    Excellent article. Thanks for writing. I am curious though why in the world you wrote “I didn’t forget Mike Gravel. Why bother?”
    If you believe what you wrote here, Gravel should be your candidate. He stands on the same stage with the others and is the only one with the guts to challenge Americans to do precisely what you have suggested: Follow the money.

  16. David,

    Thanks for your comment. The reasons I did not list Mike Gravel:

    1. After seeing his “toss a rock in a pond ad” after staring at the camera, I decided he’s crazy.

    2. He has so little money to actually follow, probably because potential donors have decided he’s crazy, too.


  17. This is a very well written, non-partisan piece that demonstrates the problems with the left and right side of politics. Thank you for contributing it to the blog carnival.

  18. After meeting him and his lovely wife Whitney last Monday, I’ve decided he is the most sane candidate in the race. Shame on you for rejecting him when he is the only one saying what you claim to believe.


  19. DavidFL10:

    On reflection, you’re right; I’m wrong. Mike Gravel is a declared candidate for president, and he’s raising money. I should not have left him because I think he’s a nut:

    After this line: “Below are the candidates, the total donated by their top 20 industries and the percentage of that total given by lawyers and law firms, retired, real estate, securities and investments and health professionals combined.”

    Add under “The Democrats”:
    “• Mike Gravel: $27,102; 37.7 percent.”

    Thanks for calliing me out on this.

  20. Thanks for the analysis. It’s very helpful. Also helped me understand the web site better, which is not entirely intuitive to navigate.

    I do think your breakdown of contributions to the individual candidates in 2008 does gloss over some possibly significant differences. The way you present the information, you make it appear that all of the candidates get most of their money from more or less the same sources. You do this by comparing the donations of the top twenty industries for each candidate, without taking into account that for some candidates these top twenty industries contributed a very large portion of that candidate’s funds, whereas for other candidates they only contributed a small portion.

    So for example (just to look at a couple extremes), Hillary Clinton received almost 27 million dollars, from her top twenty industries. That’s 42% of her total receipts. Dennis Kucinich, on the other hand, received 180 thousand dollars, from his top twenty industries. That’s only 16% of his total receipts.

    So it does appear that some candidates are taking far less money from the usual donors than others. It would be reasonable to conclude from this, I think, that these candidates are less beholden to the usual industries. Also, when a candidate like Kucinich is taking so little money, I wonder if it has the same influence as when someone like Clinton pockets 27 million dollars from her top twenty industries (or for Obama 25 million)?

    You also claim that: “No matter what candidate in which party, the dominant donors are lawyers and law firms, the retired, the securities and investments industry, real estate interests and health professionals.” However a close look at the top twenty industries for individual candidates doesn’t entirely bear this out.

    Using the stats, to which you refer, for Barack Obama real estate interests are 7th on his list of top donors and health professionals are 10th. Television, movies, and music are 6th (although you downplay the importance of this industry in the introductory section of your analysis). Somewhat similarly, for Clinton television, movies, and music are 7th and health professionals are 9th. For Kucinich, lawyers and law firms come in 8th and securities and investments do not even appear in his top twenty donors. Along these lines, for the top Republican candidates (Giuliani, Romney, McCain), health professionals also do not always rank in the top five, although the top Republican candidates otherwise do seem to more consistently stick to top five donors that you identify.

    Of course, your point is well taken that the similarities between donors for all candidates can be striking. But I do not think it is accurate to say, as you do, that “no matter what candidate in which party, the dominant donors are [the same]”. There are some differences and the significance of these differences, I think, is worth considering.

    It should also not be overlooked that, for example, 58% of Clinton’s donations, or about 37 million dollars, still came from other sources. The same percentage holds true for Barack Obama. And for Kucinich 84% of his donations came from sources other than his top twenty donors. Who are these other donors and what is their influence?

    I hope you don’t mind my examining your analysis at length. Again, I found if very helpful. I too want to know where the money comes from and what it’s real influence is. I too believe that (especially the major) candidates are largely influenced by the same sectors of the society and economy. But I’m not sure I’m convinced that the money all breaks down in quite the generic and homogeneous fashion that you outline. I do think there may be some differences between candidates worth tracking and better understanding.

  21. Jay,

    Not only do I not mind such in-depth analysis of my post(s), I encourage and applaud it.

    I’ve been writing about campaign finance for nearly three years and rarely does someone dig in and engage the material with me. I appreciate it, because I learn from it.

    For that, I’m grateful. Please keep reading S&R.



  22. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed my comment. S&R looks like a great blog, I’m a bit of a scholar (post-scholar, perhaps) myself, so I certainly will be keeping an eye on this site.