Study finds wealthy donors lean toward centrist candidates

WASHINGTON -- Ever since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 struck down restrictions on the ability of corporations to spend money in political campaigns, Democrats have been warning their followers that a tidal wave of conservative cash threatened to swamp liberal candidates.

With this year’s Republican primaries, the image of plutocrats ready to empty their bank accounts on behalf of favored conservatives got more concrete as money from Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess, Harold Simmons and other multimillionaires kept candidates on the market long after their sell-by dates.

But are the rich really so one-sidedly behind Republicans — and conservative Republicans, in particular? Many conservative commentators have fought back against that idea, pointing to wealthy donors on the left — George Soros makes a favorite target — and have argued that, if anything, America’s 1% leans left.

Luckily, amid the finger-pointing, some actual data exist.

At Stanford, Adam Bonica, an assistant professor of political science, has compiled a massive database of roughly 85 million donations made since 1979. The database details how some 11.1 million individuals distributed campaign contributions among more than 50,000 state and federal candidates for elective office, and it allows Bonica to draw some conclusions about how the rich spend their political money. The chart shows the giving pattern of one particular group of the super-rich — the members of the Forbes 400.

The blue area on the chart represents the ideological distribution of the Democratic candidates who got money. The red area shows the distribution of Republican candidates, a steeper curve that reflects the party’s more homogeneous nature. The shaded area in the middle shows the distribution of contributions by individuals on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans.


Of the 400, Bonica said at a recent Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research forum where he described his research, 377 have donated since 1979, mostly over the last 10 years. These very wealthy Americans, all billionaires, have given just short of half a billion dollars to political candidates, with a median contribution of $355,100 each. In short, they’re serious players in the political game. But contrary to the more extreme statements from either the left or the right, their contributions tend toward the safe middle.

What one sees in the chart depends a bit on the eye of the beholder. In a comment on Bonica’s research, political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University focused on the degree of overlap between the 400 and the Republican side of the chart. The data support the idea that the wealthy skew to the right, Bartels wrote.

Bonica, himself, stresses the other side of what the chart shows. “There’s this notion out there that billionaires are heavily skewed to the right,” he said at the Stanford forum. “The data does not show that. They do lean a little bit more to the right,” but overall “there seems to be a preference among the wealthiest individuals to support more centrist candidates.”

Similarly, an analysis Bonica did of members of the boards of directors of major companies found that a few — mostly in the oil, gas and coal industries — contributed almost exclusively to Republicans while board members at companies in Silicon Valley, including Google, Apple and Intel, leaned heavily to Democrats. Overall, however, most boards were fairly evenly balanced in their giving, he found.