Fundraising in governor’s race: Small-dollar donations have limited impact

MADISON, Wis. — The release of the latest fundraising numbers this week for state-level campaigns not only shows a close race for governor but also provides insight into who is funding those campaigns.

Political donations in Wisconsin can range upwards of $20,000, but from the data News 3 Now pulled of the first eight months of 2022, the median donor chipped in just $25 to a gubernatorial campaign — just as many donations were below $25 as above that figure.

But small-dollar donations (anything less than $100 that was donated by an individual or anonymous donor) make up just a sliver of the total funding picture. So far in 2022, just 7% of all the funds gubernatorial campaigns took in came from donations of less than $100. In terms of sheer quantity, however, more than eight in ten of the donations coming in were less than $100.

The figure on the left shows small-dollar donations in yellow as a percentage of the total money coming in. The figure on the right shows small-dollar donations as a percentage of the number of donations.

Even though they make up a majority of the donations coming in, those small-dollar donations may not have much power, according to Matthew Rothschild, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in Wisconsin politics.

“Why go after that $20 donor we can make a phone call and get a $20,000 donation?” Rothschild said.

In terms of politics, he said that can lead to candidates courting those high-dollar donors — it is a calculation of getting the most bang for your buck.

So far in 2022, 31 individuals have given $20,000 to a candidate — the maximum allowed under state law. Rothschild said, however, that does not mean candidates write off small-dollar donors completely.

“If [candidates] can say we have 100,000 donors, that might look impressive when a lot of those donors are small donors,” he said, “but the bulk of the total amount brought in is from the people who are giving $20,000.”

The figure on the left shows the dollar amount of all donations to gubernatorial campaigns for the first eight months of 2018 compared to small-dollar donations the same year. The figure on the right shows the same data for 2022.

This is consistent with the previous election as well. In 2018, small-dollar donations made up only 9% of the funds coming into gubernatorial campaigns. Between 2018 and 2022, while the total funds coming into campaigns rose by 23%, funds driven by those small-dollar donations decreased by 7% — meaning more of the money is coming from larger donors.

Rothschild sees this trend possibly continuing as long as there is a high bar for maximum donations.

“The incentive is going to remain the same: candidates will continue to curry favor with the super-rich,” he said.

Despite this trend, the number of small-dollar donations actually increased from 2018 to 2022 — meaning that each donation was for less money, but people were donating more frequently.

Rothschild remains wary, however.

“There’s no real incentive for small donors to give at this point at all because their small donation is a drop in the bucket,” he said.