Golden Zip Codes

From the high-rises of New York's Upper East Side to the mansions of Beverly Hills, the wealthiest Americans are opening their wallets to invest in presidential politics. Candidates Bill Bradley, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and John McCain are all overwhelmingly and disproportionately dependent on wealthy and white contributors to finance their campaigns. While the candidates obviously differ on many issues, that bottom-line fact speaks volumes about who the most important people are in selecting our next president. And they don't look like you and me.

By and large, it is the same neighborhoods--represented by zip codes like 10021 in Manhattan's Upper East Side and, of course, 90210 in Beverly Hills--that are funding all four front-runners in the race. This conclusion is based on a comparison of large individual contributions ($200 and up) to the presidential candidates with the most recent U.S. Census data, grouped by income, zip code, and race. Contributions of $200 or more account for 84 percent of the total contributions made by individuals to presidential campaigns. Of the four leading candidates, only John McCain is significantly below the average, at 69 percent. Gore, Bradley, and Bush have each raised 90 percent or more of their funds from these large donors.

The ritzy Upper East Side Manhattan zip code 10021 has yielded more money for presidential candidates than any other zip code--$1.5 million. That's nearly 80 times more money than came from people living uptown in 10029, in East Harlem, who gave $19,100. Beverly Hills 90210 has produced nearly half a million dollars for presidential candidates. From there it's a 35-minute drive to 90059, in Watts, where just $250 has been given to presidential candidates. That's nearly 2,000 times more money from the zip code 90210 than from 90059.

The effects of these disparities are not benign: The people who give all of this money are not representative of the rest of the country. In 1998 a group of academics supported by the Joyce Foun-dation published the results of a mail survey--a random sample of large individual donors ($200 or more) in the 1996 elections. Four-fifths of the donors reported an annual family income of more than $100,000 a year, and only one in 20 had an income of $50,000 or less a year. Nine out of 10 were white. By comparison, just 6 percent of Americans make $100,000 or more and roughly one-quarter of us are people of color.

More than half of the donors in the Joyce survey said they support cutting taxes even if that means reducing public services--only one-third of the public agrees with that proposition. By two to one, the donor class opposes cutting defense spending and supports free trade "even if jobs are lost." Pluralities reject national health insurance and disagree with spending more to reduce poverty.

When candidates are forced to spend so much time listening to the problems of the wealthy, they don't hear about how hard it is to get decent health coverage or child care. Instead, they get an earful about taxes or government regulations. That the wealthy keep the president on a leash is obvious by what gets done in Washington--and what doesn't. We need an alternative for the financing of presidential campaigns.