Our first of its kind 2020 National Post-Election Survey studying how voters consume media, use technology, and interact with campaigns online included an oversample of donors to build an audience of 541 donors.
These results gave us unique insights into an emerging phenomenon of political power in the United States – grassroots donors who are fueling ever-expanding campaign budgets.
Our data tells a story of who donors are, how they donate, and what motivates them to give. The results give candidates and practitioners a roadmap for better engaging supporters.
Who Are Donors?
Campaign donors are older, better educated, and wealthier than average voters. More than half of donors (53%) have a college degree or more while just over a third of voters (38%) have at least a college degree. 48% of donors are aged 65 or older while this group makes up 27% of the overall electorate. When it comes to income, 44% of donors report earning $100,000 or more per year compared to 31% of voters.
The survey data also confirms what campaigns and the media saw which is the flood of small dollar donors to Democratic campaigns in both 2018 and 2020. While among all voters in 2020, partisanship was split (46% GOP – 45% Dem), donors were overwhelmingly Democratic (34% GOP – 60% Dem). But it isn’t just that donors are more Democratic, on both sides they are more strong partisans. Among all voters, the ratio of strong to soft partisans in both parties is about 5:4, but among donors there are twice as many strong partisans as soft partisans.
This underscores the challenge that more moderate candidates in both parties have raising money from grassroots donors. That is a reminder for candidates and campaigns that what may work in digital fundraising appeals may not be as effective to persuade voters in the middle.
While donors from both parties skew older and more wealthier and educated socio-economically, GOP donors are generally similar to GOP non-donors ideologically and on other demographics (with GOP donors being slightly more male). However, Democratic donors do not reflect their voting coalition. Democratic donors are much more liberal (66%) than Democatic non-donors (52%) and are also more likely to be white (71%) than Democratic non-donors (59%). This helps explain why candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are able to fire up Democratic small dollar donors but lacked the appeal to the broader Democratic electorate compared to Joe Biden.
Donors are more engaged online than voters. Half (52%) of donors signed an online petition compared to 31% of voters and a third of donors (32%) shared political content online while just one in five (21%) of voters did the same.
Fox News Channel and email newsletters are important sources of information for Republican donors. 70% of GOP donors say they get political information from Fox News on at least a weekly basis and 56% reported the same for email newsletters. For comparison, only 45% of GOP non-donors watch Fox News weekly and 26% read political email newsletters. Last cycle, we saw Senate campaigns like Amy McGrath advertise on MSNBC and CNN in heavily Democratic areas like DC, New York City and San Francisco to draw in small dollar donors, so it would not be surprising if Republicans try to replicate this through advertising on Fox News.
How Donors Give
Donating to campaigns is now happening primarily online with 62% of donors using this method. 38% of donors gave via check or credit card in the mail. Some donors indicated giving through multiple channels with in-person events, text messaging, and phone giving rounding out the methods.
Half of donors (49%) who gave $200 or more during the election gave via traditional channels like mail, events, or over the phone compared to just 35% of donors giving less than $50. While these major donors are more likely to give via traditional channels, it is in addition to digital giving with 71% also donating online.
Similarly, 45% of donors who gave three times or more during the election donated through analog channels while 76% also contributed online.
This pattern of multi-modal giving seems to indicate that traditional donor outreach through telemarketing, direct mail, and in-person events helps bring donors into their online fundraising programs where they give more often.
In fact, 64% of donors gave multiple times to candidates or political causes throughout an election season. Frequent donors who give three times or more per election (38%) give to more unique candidates and organizations than one- or two-time donors. 35% of three-times or more donors gave to political parties, compared to just 11% of one-time donors. Half of one-time donors (54%) gave to the Presidential candidates, a quarter (23%) to federal candidates, and just 9% to state-level candidates.
For comparison, 38% of the high frequency donors gave to state candidates. This means that for many state and local candidates, barring a personal or unique connection to a donor, they are better off focusing on prospecting existing donors to other campaigns rather than trying to find brand new donors.
Why Do Donors Give?
Half of donors (49%) gave to candidates who are running to represent them (i.e., donating to someone they can also vote for). Donors to Democratic candidates were more likely (29% of donors) to give to a candidate who represents a different state than where they live. 16% of donors gave to a candidate in the state they reside but in a different district.
Donors who gave to federal candidates were more likely to give to candidates from a different state. This is due to the role that key swing states play in the determination of majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.
When asked in an open-ended question why donors give to candidates, one in four (24%) say it’s because they support the candidate and 14% say they agree with the candidates on the issues. With respect to partisan motivations, 11% of donors said they were motivated by anti-Trump and GOP sentiment. Just 1% of donors said they gave because they opposed Democrats. An equal share of donors – 6% – said they gave to support Biden or Trump. While “fund-raging” benefited Democrats more than it did Republicans while Trump was in office, it remains to be seen if that enthusiasm will hold now that he is out of office and Democrats are in full control of Washington, D.C.
Our survey work on political donating is an important first step and we hope to do more of it in the future.