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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Party Donors Have Narrowed, but Not Decided

Party scholars and political observers have been looking for ways to determine who the Democratic Party wants to be its presidential nominee. Whether you're looking at endorsements or activist preferences or something else, the lesson so far has been pretty much the same -- the party hasn't made a choice. Here, I want to look at the patterns among party donors.

I am borrowing here from Hans Hassell's research on party donation patterns. As he finds in his book The Party's Primary, we can get a good idea of how a party is leaning and whom it will nominate by examining the donation patterns of those who contribute to both candidates and party committees. These are donors with interest in a candidate and some demonstrated party loyalty. Their support may or may not cause the party to nominate a particular candidate, but it certainly conveys some advantages to that candidate, and it sends a signal to other donors, endorsers, and other political players that the candidate is to be taken seriously.

So just who are these candidate-and-committee donors converging on? With the help of the National Institute on Money and Politics, I collected all the donations made to all the Democratic presidential candidates from January 2018 through June 2019 (the most recent available disclosure date). I also collected all the donations made to state or national Democratic Party committees during the same time period.

Then I looked to see whom the candidate-and-committee donors seem to be leaning towards. I additionally limited the candidate-and-committee donors to those who had contributed at least $1,000 to a candidate to get a sense of how more elite party donors are leaning. These candidate-and-committee donors do not comprise a large share of overall donors. There have been 146,843 donors involved in the 2020 presidential cycle thus far on the Democratic side – only 4,976 (3.4 percent) also donated to a party committee, and just 1,100 (0.7 percent) donated to a party committee while giving at least $1,000 to a presidential candidate.

The figure below shows the share of donors received by each candidate among a) all donors, b) all candidate-and-committee donors, and c) candidate-and-committee donors at $1,000 and up. Candidates are listed in declining order of $1,000-and-up candidate-and-committee donors.

Some fascinating patterns can be seen in here. For one, although Senator Bernie Sanders has by far the greatest share of overall donors (20 percent of the total), he has less than four percent of the candidate-and-committee donors. And it would be hard to say that those candidate-and-committee donors have a clear favorite: their support is split between former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Warren has a slight edge over the other three among candidate-and-committee donors, while Biden and Harris have a slight edge over the other two in terms of the $1,000-and-up candidate-and-committee donors. But the best interpretation is that there really is no party favorite in this contest, at least as revealed by fundraising patterns. Senators Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and possibly Washington Governor Jay Inslee, seem to occupy a solid second tier of candidates.

This in itself is an important lesson, and is consistent with other scholarly and journalistic accounts suggesting that the party, broadly speaking, has not sent a clear indicator of its preferences for its presidential nominee in 2020. Joe Biden maintains a significant advantage in terms of public opinion polls, but in terms of endorsements, activist sentiments, fundraising, and other indicators of party preferences, the party seems to have a short list of candidates it likes, but has not decided among them.

I next examined those donors who contributed to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries and have donated to a presidential candidate in 2020 to see how they lean. The results of this analysis can be seen in the figure below. The candidates are listed in declining order of their support by Clinton donors from 2016.

The interpretation here is similar to that above. Those who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 are split in their loyalties among several leading candidates, particularly Biden, Buttigieg, and Harris, each of whom gets 15-16 percent of Clinton’s donors. Booker, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and Gillibrand get between five and eight percent of Clinton’s donors.

An interesting case is Elizabeth Warren, pulling 11 percent of Clinton’s donors and 15 percent of Bernie Sanders’ donors from 2016. Warren is really the only candidate pulling substantial funding from both camps. However, the other striking feature of this figure is that more than 60 percent of those who gave to Sanders in 2016 are giving to him now, while almost no Clinton supporters are giving to him. Consistent with other analyses, Sanders is mostly retaining his earlier support, but does not appear to be growing his coalition.

I tend to agree with Jonathan Bernstein that we have seen some functional winnowing -- there aren't that many candidates the party is seriously considering at this point, despite how crowded the debate stages have been. And donation patterns may look different after the next quarterly fundraising results are in, since the data above were almost entirely from the pre-debate period. But at least so far, while the party has been pretty clear on whom it doesn't want, it really hasn't decided whom it does.

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