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40 Charts that Explain the Influence of Money in Politics

Money has a pervasive influence on our political system. It's become essential for candidates to spend huge sums of money to get elected, and once they are in office, well-funded interests spend significant amounts to...

Money has a pervasive influence on our political system. It's become essential for candidates to spend huge sums of money to get elected, and once they are in office, well-funded interests spend significant amounts to influence their decisions. The role of money in politics is a complex issue, with campaign finance laws being struck down and money flowing into undisclosed outside groups. This article explores this issue through 40 insightful charts that shed light on the state of money in politics.

The Big Picture

1) More money is being spent on US politics than ever before

Overall spending Source: Center for Responsive Politics

This chart emphasizes the most important fact about money in politics: there is an increasing amount of it. Both election spending and lobbying have seen significant growth over the years. In 2012, total federal election spending was over $6.2 billion, double the amount spent on the intensely competitive 2000 campaign. Federal lobbying spending has also doubled during the same period. These estimates do not even include political ads aired before elections or lobbying firms' spending on PR, consulting, and grassroots organizations.

Donors: Who's spending?

2) 0.26% of the population gives 68% of the money

People who give money Source: Good Magazine

A small fraction of the population, about 0.26%, accounts for the majority of political donations. In 2010, only 800,000 people donated more than $200 to congressional campaigns, contributing more than two-thirds of all donations. This reliance on a tiny group of Americans to fund campaigns gives them significant influence over the political system.

3) Small donors don't add up to very much

Small donors Source: Campaign Finance Institute

While the internet has made it easier for candidates to raise funds from small donors, larger contributions still carry more weight. In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama received only 28% of his campaign funds from donors who gave less than $200. Romney fared even worse, with a mere 12% of his funds coming from small donors. The majority of campaign funds for both candidates came from donors giving at least $1,000.

4) The most active political givers are very polarized

Sunlight Top 1000 donors Source: Sunlight Foundation

The biggest political givers tend to be party loyalists. A study conducted by the Sunlight Foundation found that of the top 1,000 overall givers to federal campaigns and PACs in 2012, 744 gave their money exclusively to Democrats or Republicans. Those who did donate to both parties overwhelmingly favored one over the other. This polarization among top donors underscores the divisive nature of political contributions.

5) The Republican mega-donors

This chart provides a closer look at the top Republican spenders in 2012, how much they spent, and how they earned their wealth. While contributions from various business sectors are important for party fundraising, individual donors have played an increasingly significant role. For example, Sheldon Adelson, a casino billionaire, spent over $92 million to support GOP causes in 2012. The shift in campaign finance laws has allowed idiosyncratic donors to contribute more money than ever before, changing the landscape of political fundraising.

6) The Democratic mega-donors

Liberal donors 2012 Source: Center for Responsive Politics

This chart focuses on the top Democratic donors for the 2012 election cycle, their contributions, and the sources of their wealth. Notable figures include Fred Eychaner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who are involved in the media industry. George Soros and James Simons are financiers who still support the Democrats. Several donors on the list are heirs to fortunes, such as Amy Goldman and Jon Stryker. Combined, these donors spent significantly less than Sheldon Adelson and his wife.

7) Most Democratic funders are in just a few states

States of Obama bundlers Source: Center for Responsive Politics

The majority of Democratic funders are concentrated in specific states. According to the New Yorker, the main contributors to Democratic campaigns come from New York, Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley. Analysis of Obama's top 2012 bundlers, who raised over $500,000 in contributions, shows that nearly half of them came from New York, California, or Obama's home state of Illinois.

8) Business donations going to each party, by sector

Sector spending Source: Center for Responsive Politics

This chart illustrates the sectors that spend the most on elections and which party they support. In 2012, the finance sector spent the most, with 68% of their contributions going to Republicans. The health and energy sectors also favored Republicans, while lawyers, lobbyists, and the communications/electronics sector contributed more to Democrats. The allocation of funds highlights the sectoral interests and political leanings within the business community.

9) Unions spent over $4 billion on politics between 2005 and 2011

Union spending Source: Wall Street Journal

Unions are significant players in election spending, but their contributions often go unnoticed. Much of their spending does not appear on Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports because it focuses on internal communication with members and get-out-the-vote efforts. The Wall Street Journal analyzed union disclosures of political spending to the Department of Labor and found that unions spent over $4 billion on politics between 2005 and 2011. The majority of this money went to support Democratic candidates.

10) Finance money has moved to the GOP

Finance sector spending Source: Center for Responsive Politics

A significant shift in campaign finance has been the movement of finance sector money towards the Republican Party. Traditionally, the GOP had an advantage in fundraising from financiers. Obama's success in raising funds from Wall Street in 2008 disrupted this pattern, but the Democrats' advantage was short-lived. The increasing anti-bank sentiment on the left, combined with financial regulation and proposed tax increases under the Obama administration, led the finance industry to shift its giving towards Republicans. By the 2012 election, finance fundraising for Republicans had surpassed previous levels, creating a significant disparity between the two parties.

Election Spending

11) How often does the bigger spender win a Congressional race?

Higher-spending candidates Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Consistently over the past decade, the candidate who spends the most money is more likely to win a Congressional race. While the causality is not entirely clear, incumbency and the tendency of donors to support candidates already favored to win contribute to this trend. However, it is uncommon for candidates with little funding to defeat heavily-funded opponents.

12) The average cost of getting elected to Congress is soaring

Average seat cost Source: CNN

As the battle for seats in Congress becomes increasingly competitive, campaigns have become more expensive. The 2012 average cost for a Senate seat exceeded $10 million, while the average cost for a House seat has quadrupled since 1986. These figures do not include noncompetitive races, in which the average cost is even higher. To secure a seat in Congress, candidates must raise significant funds.

13) Members of Congress have to spend a ton of time fundraising

Congressional fundraising Source: Huffington Post

As the need for campaign funds increases, members of Congress must dedicate a significant amount of time to fundraising efforts. A leaked PowerPoint presentation to new members of Congress from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggests spending at least four hours a day on phone calls with donors or potential donors. Fundraising has become a priority, leaving less time for legislative work.

14) Presidential campaign spending is overwhelmingly on TV ads in swing states

Ad spending map mod Source: Data: Kantar, Analysis: John Sides, Washington Post

Presidential campaign spending focuses heavily on TV ads in swing states. In 2012, swing states such as Florida, Virginia, and Ohio saw over $150 million spent on advertising. Other swing states like Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada saw over $50 million each. The majority of the country did not witness significant campaign ad spending. Campaigns concentrate their efforts on targeted areas where they believe they can have the most impact.

15) The first modern campaign finance restrictions were soon followed by a boom in PAC spending

PAC charts Source: FEC, Corrado, Center for Responsive Politics

After campaign finance restrictions were implemented in the 1970s, political action committees (PACs) emerged as a new avenue for financing campaigns. Thousands of PACs were formed, raising hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Despite the regulations, big money quickly found alternate routes to influence elections.

16) The Supreme Court has struck down many limitations on election spending

SCOTUS campaign finance

Over the past four decades, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled campaign finance restrictions unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds. This table highlights the major cases in which the court struck down campaign finance regulations. These decisions have narrowed the scope of permissible campaign finance regulations, resulting in a significant impact on the influence of money in politics.

17) Lately, big money has shifted to Super PACs and non-disclosing groups

Super PACs and dark money

With the rise of Super PACs and non-disclosing groups, campaign spending has seen a shift towards these entities. Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts as long as they don't coordinate with candidates, have become a significant channel for big money. Additionally, certain nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts of secret money, providing an avenue for undisclosed contributions. This new landscape has led to an explosion of campaign spending outside traditional party roles.

18) Now, outside spending is soaring

Outside spending Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Due to limitations on individual and corporate contributions to candidates, there has been a significant increase in outside spending. Outside spending refers to contributions that do not come from candidates or parties. This chart displays the dramatic rise in outside spending from the 2006 midterms to the 2012 elections, reaching over $1 billion. This increase demonstrates the growing influence of big-spending individuals and groups in elections.

19) And dark money spending is soaring

Dark money soaring Source: Center for Responsive Politics

A significant portion of the increased outside spending comes from groups that do not disclose their donors, known as "dark money." This chart reveals the rise of dark money spending in federal elections. Such spending was virtually non-existent in 2004 but has grown rapidly since then. Nonprofits operating under tax codes 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) have become major players, spending over $310 million in 2012 alone. The majority of this money remains undisclosed, posing challenges for transparency in campaign financing.

20) These are the top dark money groups of 2012

Dark money 2012 Source: Center for Responsive Politics

In 2012, conservative groups dominated dark money spending, as depicted in this chart. Crossroads GPS, affiliated with Karl Rove, Americans for Prosperity, closely tied to the Koch brothers, and the US Chamber of Commerce were among the leading spenders. The only liberal group in the top 10 was the 501(c)(4) arm of the League of Conservation Voters. This chart highlights the influence of dark money in elections and the significant role it plays in campaign finance.

21) The Koch brothers' convoluted network of dark money groups

Kochtopus Source: Robert Maguire, Center for Responsive Politics

The Koch brothers' network of dark money groups was influential and complex during the 2012 elections. This graphic illustrates the convoluted web of connections and the various paths funds took to obscure their origins. The interconnectedness of different groups, such as TC4 Trust, Freedom Partners, and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, allowed funds to flow through multiple channels, making it challenging to trace the source of donations. This network highlights the opaqueness of dark money in politics.

22) Money isn't everything (Cantor vs. Brat)

Cantor Brat Source: Time

While money may play a significant role in politics, it's crucial to remember that it isn't the only determining factor. The unexpected defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by little-known and underfunded challenger Dave Brat in 2014 serves as a reminder that money is not always a decisive factor in elections. Despite Cantor outspending Brat in almost every aspect of the campaign, Brat's campaign surpassed expectations and emerged victorious.

Lobbying and Advocacy

23) These groups spend the most on lobbying

This chart showcases the 12 biggest spenders on federal lobbying between 1998 and 2014. The US Chamber of Commerce stands out as the most influential, having spent over $1 billion during that period. Other notable spenders include groups from the health industry, energy sector, and defense contractors. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is the only group on the list that doesn't represent business interests.

24) These sectors spend the most on lobbying

Lobbying Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Business interests heavily dominate the top-lobbying sectors. The health industry, finance sector, telecommunications, and energy sector have collectively spent billions of dollars lobbying the federal government since 1998. In contrast, ideological or single-issue groups and labor unions have spent significantly less. This disparity highlights the unequal distribution of resources between business and other interest groups.

25) Having more lobbyists doesn't mean you'll win

Lobbying chart Source: Baumgartner et al., "Lobbying and Policy Change"

The correlation between financial resources and policy outcomes is not always clear. While having more financial resources may increase the likelihood of success on certain issues, it does not guarantee it. This chart demonstrates that financial resources alone do not dictate policy outcomes. However, when there is a significant disparity in resources, the side with more funding has a higher likelihood of success.

26) Congress responds more to the preferences of the wealthy than to those of average people

Gilens chart Source: Gilens and Page, "Testing Theories of American Politics"

Political scientists Gilens and Page conducted a study on the preferences of wealthy elites and average citizens in American politics. Their research found that the policy preferences of wealthy elites have a greater influence on policy outcomes compared to the preferences of average citizens. This disparity highlights the disproportionate influence that wealthy individuals hold in shaping policies.

27) Over $400 million has been spent on ads attacking Obamacare

Obamacare ad spending Source: Kantar Media/Associated Press Report

Conservative groups have spent over $400 million on negative political ads attacking Obamacare since its implementation in 2010. These ads aim to influence public opinion and shape the narrative surrounding the healthcare law. In contrast, positive ads referencing the law only totaled $27 million, highlighting the significant efforts made to undermine the legislation.

28) Donors get more access to politicians and their staffers

Donor access Source: Joshua Kalla and David Broockman

Political donations often buy donors access to politicians and their staffers. A study conducted by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman demonstrated the impact of donor status on meeting requests. When meeting-seekers explicitly revealed their donor status, they were four times more likely to secure a meeting with the chief of staff and twice as likely to meet with a member of Congress. This finding highlights the influence of campaign contributions in gaining access to decision-makers.

Politicians and Their Staffers' Money

29) Most members of Congress are millionaires

Congress Median Net Worth Source: Center for Responsive Politics

The median net worth of members of Congress is approximately $1 million, with the Senate having a higher median net worth of $2.7 million compared to the House's $896,000. Wealth plays a role in running for office, as campaigns often require significant financial resources, and wealthy individuals are more likely to have connections to raise funds. It's worth noting that the richest members of each chamber, such as Rep. Darrell Issa and Senator Mark Warner, are self-made multimillionaires.

30) Many members of Congress eventually become lobbyists

Former members becoming lobbyists Source: Center for Responsive Politics

After leaving office, many members of Congress pursue careers as lobbyists. A significant portion of former members become lobbyists, while others join organizations that are clients of lobbying firms. This revolving door creates concerns about the potential influence former lawmakers may have in shaping policy decisions. This chart demonstrates the prevalence of this trend, with approximately 33% of former members going on to work for lobbying firms.

31) Many Congressional aides turn to lobbying

Baucus aides Source: Muckety

Congressional staffers also commonly transition from working for Congress to becoming lobbyists. This chart illustrates the connections between former staffers of Senator Max Baucus and the lobbying firms or clients they currently work for. Many individuals who previously worked for Baucus have taken up positions at lobbying firms and corporate interests seeking to influence legislative decisions. The revolving door between Congress and lobbying raises concerns about the influence of special interests.

32) The most famous political figures can make millions in speaking fees

Bill Clinton speaking fees Source: CNN

Prominent political figures often earn significant income from giving high-priced speeches to corporate groups. Bill Clinton stands out as the highest-earning speaker, charging at least $250,000 per speech and making over $100 million since leaving office. This chart emphasizes the lucrative opportunities available to well-known politicians outside of their official duties.

33) Congressional staffers can take trips funded by foreign governments

Foreign travel Source: Washington Post

A loophole allows Congressional staffers to accept trips funded by foreign governments. This chart visualizes the destinations of such trips taken by staffers. Between 2006 and 2011, China, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia were among the most commonly visited countries. These funded trips raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest and foreign influence on policymakers.

34) Many ambassadors were big campaign contributors

Ambassador map Source: Center for Public Integrity

Many ambassador positions are awarded to major campaign contributors. This map displays ambassadorial appointments made by President Obama in his second term. Campaign bundlers and political appointees, such as Max Baucus and Caroline Kennedy, were among those receiving prestigious diplomatic posts. This practice has raised questions about the qualifications and expertise of individuals appointed to such positions.

How the States Do Things

35) State contribution limits vary

Gov contribution limits Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

States have the authority to set their own contribution limits for political campaigns. This map reveals the wide variation in limits for gubernatorial candidates across the country. Some states, like Montana, Colorado, and New Hampshire, impose stringent caps on contributions, while others, including Texas and Pennsylvania, allow unlimited donations.

36) Public financing is not widespread

Public Financing states Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Public financing is an approach embraced by some states to reduce the influence of money in politics. However, few states have implemented comprehensive public financing systems. This map indicates which states have taken steps towards public financing for governor's races. Partial public financing systems also exist in some states for legislative or judicial races.

37) Millions are spent on state judicial elections

State Supreme Court election spending Source: Brennan Center

State judicial elections can involve substantial amounts of money. Millions were spent in states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, and North Carolina. Michigan stands out as the state with the highest spending, where $13 million was used to maintain a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The influence of money in judicial elections raises concerns about the impartiality and integrity of the justice system.

38) State ethics laws wildly vary

State corruption map Source: Center for Public Integrity

Ethics laws differ significantly across states, leading to significant disparities in transparency, campaign finance regulation, and ethics enforcement. Some states, like New Jersey, have implemented stringent ethics laws, while others, such as Virginia and Wyoming, have lax regulations. The variation in ethical standards raises accountability and corruption concerns in state politics.

39) Pay for state legislators is quite different

State Legislator Pay Source: The Economist

State legislators' salaries differ dramatically across states. The national average salary for state legislators is relatively low, at $28,300 per year. Some states pay only a few thousand dollars per year, while others, such as California and Michigan, provide salaries above $70,000. Disparities in pay are a point of contention as they can influence the diversity and quality of individuals who serve in state legislatures.


40) The Super PAC and dark money universe

Mother Jones dark money Source: Mother Jones

This visually striking graphic presents the universe of Super PACs and dark money groups in an interactive version. It illustrates the expansive network of entities and the scale of money flowing through political campaigns. The graphic highlights the complex web of parties involved and the grandeur of financial influences in contemporary politics.