Small donations equals big trend: Experts anticipate small donors to play large role in 2024 election

FILE - In this June 15, 2018, file photo, cash is fanned out from a wallet. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Donors making more small donations continue to play an increasingly big role in financing large political campaigns, such as next year’s presidential election, continuing nationwide trends seen over the past several election cycles and in Columbus.

Small dollar donations, or contributions of $200 or less, have been surging over the past several federal election cycles, accounting for 18% of all political giving during the 2022 midterm elections, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks the role that money plays in politics.

At the same time, the amount of money pouring into federal elections has skyrocketed, reaching $8.9 billion in the 2022 midterm elections, up from an inflation-adjusted $3.5 billion spent on the 2002 midterm elections.

Columbus also has seen an influx of small-dollar donations in federal elections.

In the 2022 midterm elections, city residents made 20,469 contributions of $200 or less to candidates or political action committees, up from 20 such contributions in the 2002 midterm elections, federal campaign finance filings show.

In the 2002 midterm elections, just 5% of contributions from Columbus residents were $200 or less, federal records show. Over the next two decades, that figure ballooned to just over 96%.

That wave of small donations — which had a median amount of just $12.50 during the last election cycle — helped drive political spending in Columbus to nearly $1.13 million in the 2022 midterm elections, a record for a midterm election and up from an inflation-adjusted $376,071 in the 2002 midterm elections, when the median contribution amount was an inflation-adjusted $813.

And the same trends are being seen in presidential elections.

In the 2020 presidential election, small donors in Columbus opened their checkbooks more often than they ever had before, making a record 32,822 contributions of $200 or less. By comparison, there were just 39 such contributions during the tight presidential race between former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

In total, Columbus residents made $1.97 million in political contributions for the 2020 presidential election, with donations of $200 or less representing 96% of all contributions, up dramatically from around 8% of all contributions in 2000.

These figures, however, likely do not paint a complete picture of small-dollar donations as federal candidates are only required to make “best efforts” to obtain information on contributors who give more than $200, including their addresses, according to the Federal Election Commission.

“Our federal elections are seeing an increase in small-donor participation,” said Pete Quist, deputy research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “…We’ve been seeing this trend now for a few years. In 2016, we started seeing quite an engagement by small donors, but that has continued through the 2018 and 2020 elections and through 2022, each year’s election resulting in higher portions of contributions coming from small donors largely across the board. This is affecting both Republicans and Democrats and also incumbents and non-incumbents.

“The reason that I would expect (the trend) to continue is because it has been so pronounced over the last few years,” he added.

Media, tech and polarization

Experts say that the sharp increase in small-donor contributions in federal elections is largely being fueled by an evolving media landscape that emphasizes national politics and technological advances that have made it easier for people to send money to campaigns and political action committees.

These changes have coincided with a dramatic transformation in how local residents participate financially in federal elections.

In an era when most U.S. households don’t have a landline telephone and more Americans are streaming TV than watching cable, campaigns have turned to social media and other data sources to send out text messages and emails soliciting contributions to pockets of people who they believe will be more likely to give money.

In addition, both major parties have set up online platforms — WinRed for the Republicans and ActBlue for the Democrats — that are designed to make it easy for people, including small-dollar donors, to contribute to campaigns. The two platforms have raised nearly a combined $1.17 million in Columbus since their inception, federal records show.

“You have these platforms allowing very small contributions and facilitating that and really targeting that grassroots donor support, in addition to the fact that people who are newly engaged in politics who are not wealthy individuals may begin by engaging with small contributions,” Quist said. “…Oftentimes, (the platforms) will try to get a small-dollar donation in a recurring manner. You’ll end up with a contributor who will make several $5 donations.”

Other experts, including Marjorie Hershey, a professor emeritus of political science at Indiana University, also attribute part of the rise of small-donor participation to political polarization that has ratcheted up to such a level that many “people see the candidates of the other party not just as unappealing but as hostile and threatening.”

“We have a very polarized electorate right now, and that motivates a lot of people to feel that if the other party wins, it’s not just something that can be changed later, but it’s a disaster,” said Hershey, who has studied political parties and campaigns. “So, they are more likely to give money.”

Additionally, experts say, a media environment in which Americans are consuming more and more news about national politics — instead of local or state politics — has led to what Quist described as “the nationalization of (political) news.”

“You’ll see a lot of election coverage for elections that aren’t in your state,” Quist said. “If you are watching national news, for example, there is a 24-hour news cycle now that has been growing in its intensity for many years now, and that is helping to get people more engaged with what is going on in politics.”

Columbus residents have taken more of an interest in out-of-state elections than in the past, making 178 contributions totalling roughly $12,511 to the campaigns of Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, and GOP challenger Herschel Walker in last year’s Senate race in Georgia.

At the same time, “the media have polarized as well,” with an increasing number of outlets “just taking one side” to the point that “it’s possible now for people to totally encase themselves in news that reflects one point of view,” Hershey said.

“Because of that, it’s possible for people to get really stirred up because these news sources can increase their viewership or their readership by stirring up their audiences and making them feel like any other source of news is wrong and illegitimate,” Hershey said.

“There are an awful lot of people who have come to hate the other party more than they love their own party, and that tends to spur increasing donations, especially by small givers,” Hershey added.

Local party leaders

Current and former local party leaders attributed much of the increase in small dollar donations in Columbus to technological changes that have made it “so easy for you to give online or on social media.”

Bartholomew County Democratic Party Chair Ross Thomas said the increase in local small-dollar contributions is likely related to a heightened focus on national issues among segments of the population. In addition, he said the use of social media and targeted text messaging by the two major national parties also is playing a role.

“I think it’s the use by the national parties and national candidates of social media, particularly targeted text messaging and those kinds of things,” Thomas said. “You can really micromanage who your audience is. I think that parties and campaigns have figured that out. People get bombarded with emails and text messages and social media (posts), and it’s easy to click on and give to somebody.”

Bartholomew County Republican Party Chair Luann Welmer said she would at least partly ascribe the increase in small-dollar contributors to local Republicans feeling more energized, pointing to higher attendance at local GOP events as of late.

“I just feel like people want to see change, they want to see our conservative values shared and they know they have to be involved to get that to happen,” Welmer said.

Welmer also said she hopes to see a lot of energy for GOP candidates running for federal office in next year’s election, but “I think it depends on who our candidates are.”

Former Bartholomew County Republican Party Chair Barb Hackman said some of the increase in small donors in Columbus over the past couple presidential elections also could be attributed to having Columbus native Mike Pence on the ballot as Trump’s running mate.

“A hometown boy was our vice president,” Hackman said. “I’m sure that played a large part in the contributions.”

2024 fundraising

Currently, local contributions for the 2024 presidential election are down substantially compared to the same point in the 2020 race, federal records show.

However, election experts say that most people, particularly small donors, don’t usually become engaged in a presidential race until election year.

Former President Donald Trump recently saw a notable spike in contributions to his White House bid after declaring in a post on his social media platform in March that he expected to be arrested as part of an investigation into hush money payments made to women he is accused of having affairs with.

In March, Trump’s campaign received $66,927 from Hoosiers, more than double the $30,584 in February and $37,056 in January.

Trump also saw a notable spike in contributions on March 30, the day he was indicted, when his campaign reported $15,511 in contributions from Indiana residents, the highest single day total this year. Before his indictment, the previous single day high in Indiana was $3,654.

The most recent data available goes through the end of March, before President Joe Biden formally announced that he will be seeking reelection next year.

In the meantime, experts say they still expect the recent trends in fundraising and polarization to continue in the 2024 election.

“I don’t think there’s much question (that these trends will continue in the 2024 election),” Hershey said. “It’s very hard to see how we get past this polarization. …On the one hand, we wish we had less conflict, but on the other hand, we’re so often surrounded by messages that are one-sided and lead us to feel more conflicted, more involved in the conflict. So, it’s difficult to see how that changes.”

“It probably only changes at the local level, when people become involved in community services and various activities that help them see that people from the other party are not demons, but they too have a desire to help the community,” Hershey added.