Analysis: Clinton backed by Big Money: Sanders by Small

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This article examines FEC data in depth and finds what most people already know. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid is financed largely through a relatively small quantity of big donors while Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid is funded by numerous small donors.

In order to do our analysis, we look at four hundred thousand individualized contributions reported to the FEC at the end of the 2015 year. These contributions are only reported for individuals who have donated $200 or more. Because many individuals give smaller than $200, this means we do not have individualized information for many individuals. For Hillary Clinton, this means about 16% of contributions are not reported as individualized. For Bernie Sanders, this means 74% of contributions are not reported as individualized.
Table 1: The histogram captures the distribution of contributions. Note the x axis is scaled by log10 so the same distanced exists between 1 and 10 as, 10 and 100, or 100 and 1000
From Table 1, we can see that throughout the entire 2015, Clinton has vastly more large contributors than Sanders with over 20,000 campaign contributors giving the maximum contribution value of $2700*. Clinton also has a larger number of large donors giving the contribution values with another 20,000 donors giving between $500 and $2700.

Conversely, for the smaller value donations, Sanders has many more contributors than Clinton with nearly 35,000 contributions at $100 compared with Clinton’s 23,000. With $50 donations, Sanders also does much better with over double the number of donations with over 40,000 contributions compared with Clinton’s 20,000. The difference is even more stark with Sanders receiving nearly 40,000 ten dollar donations compared with Hillary’s 12,000.

 There are some ways to avoid the legal contributions limits as discussed in this NPR article.
Figure 2: A series of box-plots comparing contributions over time for 2015. The horizontal dotted line is at the individual maximum of $2700. There is also a maximum of 5000 that can be contributed to a PAC. Many of the contributions that exceed $2700 end up having part of them refunded to the contributor because they exceed the legal limit. Outliers are indicated with ‘x’s. Note the y axis is on the log10 scale. Looking at November, we can see some two significant outliers to from the “Hillary Victory Fund” at 1.6 and 1.8 million respectively. These are reported as unitemized but this seems rather unique.
From Figure 2 we can see some pretty shocking facts about the nature of her contributions early in her bid. In April and May and almost into June the upper quartile (top 25%) of her contributions were at or above the legal maximum. This is vastly different from Sanders who had a handful of contributions at or about the legal maximum but nothing close to the number by Clinton. Overall, difference between the two in April and May could not be any more stark with the upper quartiles for Sanders at or below the median for Clinton for nearly all of the months observed.

Overall we can see there is a significant amount of movement in the size of donations over time. For both Clinton and Sanders, there is a bit of a race to the bottom. This is driven somewhat by the nature of the reporting laws as contributions are not reported until an individual has given at least $200. After that, all contributions are reported. Thus many of the smaller contributions will be reported as repeat contributors keep donating.

Figure 3: Shows the distribution of contributions by candidate. This figure is the the same as Figure 2 except the y-axis is not scaled by log10 and the upper limit is set at the legal maximum of 2700. Outliers above 1.5x the interquartile range have also be removed.
Form Figure 3, we can see that the difference in the nature of contributions by candidate is vast with almost all of the contributions to the Sanders campaign of less than $500. For the first two months over half of the listed contributions for the Clinton campaign was $500 or more. Over time, the average size on contributions decreased though much faster for the Sanders campaign.

From Figures 2 and 3 we might be concerned that Sander’s campaign is not capable of raising sufficient funds to compete with the Clinton campaign. However, this is forgetting that Sanders has many many more contributors than Clinton. In order to get an estimate of the number of contributions that are given but itemized, I look at the number of contributions each quarter unitized and assume that those contributions are on average $30 (probably a high estimate).

Table 1: Total Not-Itemized Contributions by quarter. # of Contributions is based on assuming each of these contributions estimated $30.

$ Not-Itemized# Of Contributions
First Report (July)$8,098,571 269,952
Fall Report (October)$5,193,811 173,127
Year End Report (December)$5,707,408 190,247
First Report (July)$10,465,912 348,864
Fall Report (October)$20,187,064 672,902
Year End Report (December)$23,421,034 780,701

From Table 1, we can see that Clinton initially reported nearly as many small contributions as Sanders, those contributions have since fallen off while Sanders small contributions have significantly increased in order to outpace Clinton by four to one.

Figure 4: Total number of contributions over time and the difference between the two.
Smoothing the number of small contributors across the months campaigning we end up with Figure 4 in which we quickly see how vast the difference between the number of contributors to the Sanders campaign and the Clinton campaign are.

Initially, Clinton enters the race a little earlier with a quarter million contributions. However, once Sanders enters the campaign, he quickly gains support with his total number of contributions matching that of Clinton by June 5th and continues to grow. By September 20th Sanders has already collected twice the number of contributions that Clinton has.

So how does this map to total contributions collected over time? We already know that Clinton has a large number of big donors on her side.
Figure 5: Total quantity of dollars contributed over time.
From Figure 5, we can see that despite Clinton getting an early and big hand up from large money. As early as July, the difference in funds raised by Clinton was just over 30 million more than that raised by Sanders. However, despite continuing to have large contributions, this difference has not increased much since with as of the end of the year, only a little more than a 35 million dollar different from individual contributions.

Overall, this is an AMAZING fact. Somehow, despite having the majority of wealthy democratic donors in her corner, Clinton has failed to out-raise Sanders since July!

Not only that, but Hillary is in a difficult position, many of her largest donors have already maxed out their ability to legally contribute to her campaign, yet very few of Sanders contributors have gotten close to maxing out their legal ability to contribute to campaigns. Of course there are always the dubiously legal contributions to candidate Super-PACs made legal by the infamous “Citizens United” supreme court ruling.

However, as Sanders has campaigned against Super-PACs and Hillary is attempting to win over his supporters, it will certainly be interesting to see how fundraising changes moving forward as she risks being hamstrung by her narrow but affluent base.

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