Considering the almost hour-by-hour polling of the nation's voters, it's amazing how little is done to survey the views and backgrounds of the people who really matter in American politics: the elite class of political donors.
Thus, an unusual survey conducted this summer is worth hailing. The poll compared a sample of 200 political contributors (half had contributed at least $5,000 to Democrats and the other half had given at least $5,000 to Republicans) with a general pool of 1,000 registered voters. The survey was conducted by Lake Snell Perry & Associates for the Institute for America's Future and the Nation Institute.
The donor class is not like the rest of us--that much is clear. Nearly three-quarters of the big-money contributors in this poll (which used conventional random-sampling methods after the original pool of names was drawn from Federal Election Commission records) were male, compared to 48 percent of the voters. And the donors were significantly older and more right-leaning than the general public. Only 20 percent of the donors were under the age of 44, compared to about half the voters. And perhaps most telling, when asked about their own economic standing, a whopping 80 percent of the donors said that "the current economic boom has reached people like [them]." By comparison, just 42 percent of registered voters said the boom has reached them; 54 percent said it has not.
These findings track fairly well with a 1997 survey of congressional campaign donors financed by the Joyce Foundation and conducted by a team led by John Green of the University of Akron. Their poll of more than 1,100 donors who gave $200 or more in the 1996 election discovered that this group was overwhelmingly male (81 percent), white (95 percent), old (only 12 percent were under 45), and rich. More than four in five claimed an annual income of $100,000 or more. Only 6 percent of the overall population declares that level of income to the IRS. Fifty percent were Republicans.
There are many interesting insights to be teased out of the Lake poll, several of which were discussed in an article in the August 21-28 issue of The Nation by Celinda Lake and Robert Borosage, who oversaw the survey. As Lake and Borosage point out, there is a huge gap between voters and donors on major public policies. They disagree by large margins about such issues as free trade, permanent normal trade relations with China, and the partial privatization of Social Security. These disagreements exist in both parties. But the gap is more pronounced among Republicans. For example, fully twice as many Republican donors (56 percent) as voters (28 percent) said they "strongly favor" the partial privatization of Social Security. Among Democrats, the disparity on this issue is smaller, with just 20 percent of donors and 13 percent of voters favoring such a major change.
Almost half the Republican donors said they think large businesses and corporations have "the right amount" of influence on the federal government. By contrast, 68 percent of Republican voters think big business has too much influence, mirroring the views of Democratic donors (63 percent) and voters (78 percent). Asked about the Lockheed Martin Corporation's having received more than $12 billion in prime government contracts after spending $8.2 million on lobbying and campaign contributions, most voters (71 percent)--including Republican voters (66 percent)--said this was "legalized bribery." But only 32 percent of Republican donors agreed with that statement. A majority said this was "a normal and ethical way to do business."
Two other intriguing nuggets: In light of a similar survey Lake and Borosage conducted four years ago, the donor class seems to have tempered some of its views of free trade and laissez-faire. Perhaps the protests against globalization that burst out last year in Seattle have affected some fat cats. For example, the percentage of donors who say that "most government regulations go too far now, making it too difficult for companies to grow and create jobs," dropped from 58 percent in 1996 to 45 percent today. The percentage saying that free trade agreements create more jobs in the United States than they cost also dropped 10 points from 1996.
Finally, there's sobering news for anyone who thinks voter turnout will be spurred by the close contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Registered voters prefer that the budget surplus be spent on investing in education and better public schools (the choice of 32 percent) and expanding health care coverage to more of the uninsured (29 percent) rather than providing an across-the-board tax cut (18 percent), paying down the national debt (15 percent), or increasing military spending (4 percent). But Bush has made the tax cut his number-one priority, and Gore makes rousing calls to pay down the debt--measures favored by more than half the donor class. Hmmm. When voters are offered the choice of ratifying an agenda already set by the donors (who voted last year with their dollars), is it any wonder that half of them won't bother to vote this fall?