Whoever wins today’s election, the United States is still an oligarchy, and in an oligarchy, money is the great decider. All the policy platforms, speeches, and interviews in the world may not tell you as much about the future of the next administration as the bedrock of cash their campaign was built on. So it’s worth looking at where the respective candidates have gotten their money from during this cycle.
The GOP and the still-dominant corporate wing of the Democratic Party are today still, as ever, primarily the servants of the country’s business class and superrich. But within that tiny, all-powerful slice of the American public are competing factions that take the differences between the two parties very seriously, enough to potentially blow millions of dollars on the wrong horse. And below that is a thinner layer of small-dollar donations given to the candidates by Americans from all walks of life who, for one reason or another, are inspired enough by a candidate or their respective party to give away a portion of their hard-earned income, affording us a possible view into the nature of a candidate’s appeal.
The 2020 contest is poised to shatter campaign spending records, with $14 billion projected to have been put on the table by the time the dust settles — more than double the last presidential race. It looks like the infection of the political sphere by big money will be as widespread and pernicious as ever for the foreseeable future — and it pays to understand where it’s coming from.
Most industries typically hedge their bets and give generously to both candidates and their respective parties. But there are always some notably partisan outliers, and that’s true this year, when there have been notable shifts in oligarchic funding, based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
For both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, there is a healthy overlap of industry support in their upper echelons of corporate giving: the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) industry, the health care sector, the defense industry, and lawyers and lobbyists, for instance. But this generosity isn’t even-handed, particularly in a race this seemingly lopsided. With polling casting Biden as on track for a possibly massive victory most of this year, corporate donors have tended to back the presumed winner, with Biden dominating in contributions from various sectors.
Finance might be the clearest example. At the end of October, Biden had a more than four-to-one advantage over Trump in donations from Wall Street, shorthand for the securities and investment industry that includes investment banks, private equity firms, hedge funds, and more.
Biden is ending the election with $74 million from Wall Street to Trump’s $18 million, a total that, according to CNBC, dwarfs Barack Obama’s record-breaking fundraising haul from the industry in his two campaigns combined, but falls short of the $87 million Hillary Clinton picked up in 2016. A list of bundlers recently released by the campaign, which is larger than Obama’s 2012 list but substantially smaller than Clinton’s in 2016, has more than thirty executives connected to financial firms. (Trump didn’t release his list.)
It’s a similar story on the health care front. Biden has been the health care industry’s guy since the Democratic primary, likely owing to his vehement and long-standing opposition to Medicare for All and his stable lead in the polls throughout the contest. And that’s continued into the general election.
According to a Business Insider analysis, Biden has outraised Trump among health care executives by nearly double: $47 million to $21 million. He’s raised around $11 million from hospitals and their employees compared to Trump’s $4 million, and he enjoys an advantage against Trump among every element of the health care sector, from chiropractors and medical devices to HMOs and health professionals, except one: dentists, with whom Trump has a narrow edge. (Nurses, meanwhile, have still given more to Bernie Sanders, who dropped out in April, than either Trump or Biden.)
One particularly notable difference is in the pharmaceutical industry. Like the rest of the sector, pharma is overwhelmingly backing Biden this year, and they have shifted their financial backing to down-ballot Democrats, reversing a trend of solid support for the GOP in 2018 and 2016. There’s a catch, though: Reuters has found that while pharmaceutical employees tilt Democratic, backing Biden four-to-one, executives are supporting the GOP by nearly double.
This pro-Biden lean is evident in several other industries. Biden has a roughly five-to-one fundraising advantage among lobbyists, and an even more dramatic, nearly ten-to-one advantage among lawyers, to the point that even lawyers working at firms representing Trump are favoring Biden with their money. Likewise with the defense sector, with whom Biden enjoys a solid lead over Trump — surprising, given Trump’s four years of lavish giveaways to the war industry, but likely explained by Biden’s dominant polling lead.
Those are the industries Biden and Trump have in common. But there are a number of sectors that are almost exclusively giving their backing to only one of the candidates this election.
Some of Biden’s top contributors come from typical liberal causes. His number-one industry, way out ahead with $256 million to both his campaign and outside groups supporting him, are Democratic and liberal organizations. These are entities like the Priorities USA super PAC or the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal advocacy group funded by unions and other liberal sources.
Other typically liberal causes supporting Biden almost exclusively include the nonprofit sector, feminist groups, public-sector unions, and environmental groups. With a few exceptions, these liberal industries are substantially smaller contributors than health care, the FIRE industry, or law firms.
One of those exceptions is the reliably liberal and very well-heeled entertainment industry, which can be counted on to back any general election presidential candidate with a “D” next to their name, and which has several billionaire donors giving to Biden. Those include Rupert Murdoch, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Power Rangers mogul Haim Saban, as well as Half-Life auteur Gabe Newell. Another is the education sector, more than 90 percent of whose $150 million worth of donations this cycle has gone to Democrats, and 85 percent of whose presidential donations have gone to Biden.
The other major exception is the tech sector. Silicon Valley has long been intimately connected to the Democratic Party, not just in terms of funding and political outlook, but in personnel, with some prominent big tech officials actually leaving to go work for the Biden campaign. Executives from the sector have been major fundraisers and bundlers for Biden, and tech billionaires and millionaires, no doubt spurred by hostile rhetoric from Trump and Republicans, have stepped up their Democratic giving since 2016. By one estimate, tech had given Biden $43.5 million by the end of October, compared to $5.7 million for Trump. Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook are all in Biden’s top ten contributors this cycle.
But Trump has select industries in his corner, too. One is casinos and gambling, which have given more than $38 million in support of Trump, the vast majority going to outside groups backing the president. In reality, this sum comes almost entirely from Las Vegas Sands, the company owned by GOP megadonor and ultra–Israel hawk Sheldon Adelson, who is estimated to have spent around $250 million in total to get Trump and various other Republicans elected this cycle, some of which has gone to so-called “dark money” groups, making it untraceable.
Another is fossil fuels. While being nowhere to be found in Biden’s top industries, likely owing to industry anxiety over what exactly Biden’s climate program will be should he win, oil and gas is Trump’s eighth-largest industry, giving $13 million to Trump and associated outside groups, and less than $1 million in support of Biden. It’s a reversal from 2016, when Hillary Clinton outraised Trump among the energy sector and fell roughly even with him on contributions from oil and gas interests specifically. Fossil fuel executives have cited Biden’s spruced up but still insufficiently ambitious climate plan as a driver to cut Trump more generous checks.
Things changed as the race has come to a head, however. Despite the emergence of “climate donors” organizing to offset Trump’s fossil fuel money advantage — ultrawealthy liberals worried about climate catastrophe, like billionaire Tom Steyer and actress Julia Louis-Dreyfuss — spooked fossil fuel companies stepped up their donations to both Democrats and Biden specifically as we hurtled toward the end of October.
Workers of the Country
Equally revealing is the limited demographic profiles we have of Biden and Trump’s respective donor bases.
The most comprehensive and eye-opening study of this came recently in the New York Times, which analyzed reams of fundraising and income distribution data to paint a picture of who was giving money to both. The Times found that, among the country’s wealthiest zip codes, meaning those with a median household income of $100,000 and higher, Biden easily outraised Trump, raking in $486 million to the president’s $167 million. This echoes the findings of Business Insider earlier this year, that in the country’s seven wealthiest zip codes, Biden had more donors than Trump in all but two of them, which happened to be in Florida: Palm Beach, the home base of Mar-a-Lago, and Fisher Island, the richest zip code in America with its median income of $2.2 million.
Biden’s advantage in more highly educated zip codes was even starker. In neighborhoods where at least 65 percent of residents had graduated from college, Biden took in $478 million to Trump’s $104 million — a more than four-to-one ratio.
Astonishingly, this also means the reverse for Trump. Despite pursuing a nakedly plutocratic agenda as president, lavishing gifts on the superrich and the corporate sector while pushing cruel austerity on the US working class, Trump’s narrow fundraising advantage actually lies among the disappearing middle class.
Biden still enjoys a $16 million lead over Trump among zip codes with a median household income below $100,000. But go further down the ladder by eliminating neighborhoods whose median sits between $75,000 and $100,000, and Trump has a clear fundraising advantage over Biden, though the Times did not quantify it. (Neither candidate has received barely anything from zip codes where the median household is $25,000 and under.) Meanwhile, Trump has a solid lead of $39 million over Biden in neighborhoods where less than 65 percent of residents graduated from college.
This is partly explained by Trump’s support from small-business owners. And it also may suggest that much of Bernie Sanders’s overwhelmingly working-class donor base has, as early numbers indicated, failed to get behind either of the two general election candidates since his dropping out.
But it is also in line with polling showing Trump performing better with black and Latino voters against Biden than he did in 2016; blacks and Latinos are both less likely than white Americans to hold a college degree, and their median household income sits at $50,000 and $40,000, respectively. Alternatively, it suggests that there is section of white working-class voters who have not abandoned Trump despite the policies he’s pursued the past four years — something also hinted at in Trump’s continued strength with rank-and-file union members. The election results and accompanying postmortems will shed some light on this.
There are clear geographic trends to these donations, too. The Times noted that Biden’s financial lead is almost entirely owed to just four coastal states (California, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington), and that it’s concentrated in the big cities and suburbs within those. This coastal-versus-central dynamic was sometimes replicated in microcosm when drilling further down. The San Diego Union-Tribune, for instance, found that, in San Diego County, Biden ran up a three-to-one advantage thanks largely to donors in coastal regions, while Trump’s support was rooted in rural areas.
Biden’s advantage among high-income coastal areas is well illustrated by this set of campaign funding maps produced by NPR, which show Biden’s strongest financial support on the country’s outer edges, with vast swaths of the Midwest, South, and Great Plains barren of contributions. While Trump, too, has his strongest financial support in some of these same coastal areas, he also has a more even spread of contributions across the country, with all but a few small parts of the country’s “flyover states” filled in. Texas and Florida, in particular, are important centers of financial support for Trump, no doubt owing in large part to the many members of the conservative ultrarich in those states.
But as the race has gone on, Biden has reversed those trends. Through the summer and by the end of October, Biden had made significant gains in donor numbers in many of these states thanks to a specific series of events, including his choice of Kamala Harris for running mate, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and, most significantly, the first debate that was so disastrous for Trump. This includes states that he was previously trailing the president in, such as Wisconsin, where at the end of July, Trump was outraising Biden in every one of its metro areas, and Minnesota, a typically Democratic stronghold where Trump had a hefty fundraising lead by that same time.
Still, it remains the case that Biden’s most passionate donor support lies in a handful of wealthy enclaves in a few coastal, liberal states. Meanwhile, according to OpenSecrets, by the end of October, a higher proportion of Trump’s fundraising (45 percent) came from small donors than was the case for Biden (38 percent).
Thanks to a recent Bloomberg compilation of occupation data from the online donation platforms ActBlue and WinRed, we have an even better idea of the kinds of donors that have gravitated toward each candidate. Based on this data, Biden has attracted a cross-class coalition of the working class, highly educated professionals, and owners of capital. The largest number of Biden’s donors are concentrated among teachers, lawyers, engineers, sales professionals, and nurses. A tier down, he has also won the majority of support from workers like managers, accountants, doctors, professors, and consultants. Below that, he’s won a diverse array of occupations ranging from librarians, scientists, and writers to architects, cashiers, musicians, and CEOs and other executives.
Meanwhile, Trump’s most loyal constituencies appear to be homemakers, those on disability, and, to a lesser extent, a host of blue-collar occupations: mechanics, electricians, painters, welders, and the like. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he also enjoys support from business owners, brokers, police officers, and firefighters.
To some extent, Trump and Biden have split Sanders’s working-class coalition in the primaries. While several occupations have been won over by Biden — including professors, librarians, teachers, and social workers — a number of others have gone to Trump, such as truckers, drivers, construction workers, farmers, and cops.
It’s important to keep this in perspective, however. This is all in the context of a race in which the unprecedently high total of small donor donations — $2.8 billion — is still just one-fifth of the total money raised.
Battle of the Billionaires
Many of these dynamics have also played out in the candidates’ battle for billionaire cash, another field in which Biden has dominated. As of the end of the race, Biden has the support of 150 billionaires (to the tune of $569 million) to Trump’s 108 ($250 million).
As with the rest of the donations, these are heavily split along industrial and geographical lines. Biden’s advantage is owed largely to wide majorities in tech (21-3), finance (32-20), and media, entertainment, and fashion (20-6, counting Michael Bloomberg), clustered overwhelmingly in New York and California, as well as a much smaller number of billionaires in Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
Trump, meanwhile, dominates among billionaires from the energy, manufacturing, casino, and sports sectors, as well as a number of other industries. As with his broader donor profile, his billionaire backers are clustered mostly in New York, Florida, Texas, and spread through the West, Midwest, and South.
Despite Biden dominating among the billionaire class, it’s nonetheless Trump who has the most generous single billionaire backer in the form of Adelson. Bloomberg’s pledge of $100 million to help elect Biden in Florida and dropping of $15 million on Ohio and Texas is nowhere near the more than $1 billion he spent on his own run to block a Sanders candidacy. Likewise with Steyer, who has been lending a hand to Biden through fundraisers — not quite the $200 million he dropped on his primary campaign.
Every presidency constitutes a swarm of competing interests — financial, political, personal, and otherwise. To the extent that the 2020 money race gives us a peek into the future, it may give us some idea of the tensions and conflicts that either Trump or Biden will have to navigate or, perhaps, succumb to. Looking further ahead, it may even hint at a future political alignment beyond the next four years.
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