“Fat Cats” in Philadelphia

There are many serious arguments in the campaign finance world concerning free speech, undue influence, the costs and benefits of regulations and new laws, and the overall health of our campaign system.

Sadly, those arguments rarely make it to the general public. What replaces them? Innuendo that all politicians are sold to the highest bidder – innuendo that confirms our natural political biases (“Democrats are corrupt, union shills!”, “The GOP is owned by Big Oil!”), but does very little to advance our understanding of the state of the federal campaign finance regime.

Consider a recent headline at OpenSecrets – the media’s go-to source for data on political spending:

“And the good times rolled: 17 donors gave three-quarters of Dems’ convention money”

The conversation this stokes is not a healthy one. “Can you believe that just 17 rich dudes funded the entire Democratic Convention? Those money-grubbing Democrats, am I right?” “What are you talking about? We all know the Republicans are way worse!”

Terrible bar arguments aside, the reality is not nearly as salacious as the headline suggests. The rest of the article outlines who those 17 donors actually are, and while neither I nor anyone at CCP can speak to whether or not “the good times rolled” at the Democratic Convention – whatever that means – I can say pretty confidently that Democrats were not disproportionately influenced by wealthy fat cats.

The top five donors (in order) were: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (via a state grant), the city of Philadelphia, an in-kind contribution from Comcast (the event was held at the Comcast sports complex), PIDC-LOCAL Development Corporation (a nonprofit founded by the city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce), and the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau – Philly’s tourism board. These top five “donors” accounted for about half of the total funds raised for the convention.

Does anyone seriously believe that these five “donors” are donating to exert undue influence on Democrats, rather than to support a major event in their area? Does anyone think that donations from Pennsylvania and Philadelphia were used to crowd out the voice of the poor for the voice of the wealthy? At worst, the influence being exerted is for delegates to dine out at Philadelphia restaurants and for Democratic staffers to drink at Philadelphia bars.

To be fair, the OpenSecrets post lays out the reality once you dive into the weeds. It outlines how many donors are corporations versus unions, and whether they gave to the GOP Convention as well. It discusses how donations from the city were really a federal pass-through for security spending, and how donations from the Visitors Bureau are connected to the IRS denial of tax-exempt status to the Convention (an interesting story of its own). And the post does say that the list only has one true “fat cat” (J.B. Pritzker donated $1,250,000).

But in the world of Twitter, those details are lost by all but the most diligent reader. The majority of folks will walk away with the impression created by the headline, which is a far cry from the article it describes. Those readers will simply dismiss the Democratic Convention as one more lavish party thrown by the wealthy for the powerful, instead of gaining insight into how political conventions are funded and why. That’s the result of a lazy and cynical presentation of the story’s actual facts and a choice to confirm our biases when they could’ve been challenged.

I understand that “Half of Dem Convention Funds Come from Groups Supporting Philadelphia” is not click-bait. But it would better inform readers.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.