661 Billionaires Pumped $1.2 Billion Into 2020 Elections—About 1 Out of Every 10 Dollars Contributed As American Tycoons Translate Riches Into Political Clout
Twelve years after the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to big money in politics with its controversial Citizens United decision handed down Jan. 21, 2010, a new report from Americans for Tax Fairness finds a tsunami of billionaire contributions has been flowing into federal elections.
Translating their wealth into political power, billionaires upped their campaign contributions from a relatively modest $31 million in the 2010 elections (the first held under the new rules) to $1.2 billion in the most recent presidential cycle—a nearly 40-fold increase. Billionaire political donations in 2020 were nearly double the $682 million in 2016, the last presidential election. [See Figure 1 and this full data set] (The 2020 contributions do not include another $1.4 billion in total contributed by Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer to their own presidential campaigns.) The contributions data is from Open Secrets at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) and covers donations made to candidates, party committees, PACs, super PACs and 527 groups.
In the 2020 election cycle, billionaires contributed nearly $1 out of every $10, while making up just 0.01% of all donors contributing more than $200. In the 2010 election cycle, the dawn of the Citizens United era, billionaires provided less than 1% of all contributions. [See Figure 2] There were 401 billionaires in 2010 and 661 in 2020, according to Forbes data used throughout this analysis.
Citizens United allowed for the rise of “super PACs” which unlike traditional political action committees can raise unlimited amounts of campaign cash as long as they do not “coordinate” election activities with a candidate or political party. With these new political vessels available to take on their cargo of cash, billionaires and other wealthy people have been spending more and more on elections.
“On this anniversary of the disastrous Citizens United decision, the escalating campaign donations of billionaires offer the clearest argument possible for why we have to get big money out of politics,” said Frank Clemente, ATF’s executive director. “Weak taxation of the wealthy combined with anemic regulation of campaign fundraising have handed America’s billionaires outsized political influence to go along with their huge economic clout.”
The report finds that almost 40% of all billionaire campaign contributions made since 1990 occurred during the 2020 season. Billionaires had a lot more money to give politicians and political causes in 2020 as their collective wealth jumped by nearly a third, or over $900 billion, to $3.9 trillion between the March beginning of the pandemic and a month before Election Day. Billionaire fortunes have continued to climb since: as of October 2021, billionaires were worth $5.1 trillion, more than a 20-fold increase in their collective fortune since 1990, when it stood at $240 billion, adjusted for inflation.
These campaign donations are a profitable investment: they buy access to politicians and influence over tax and other policies that can save tycoons billions of dollars. While that $1.2 billion “investment” in 2020 was massive, it totaled less than 0.1% of billionaire wealth (and less than one day’s worth of their pandemic wealth growth), leaving almost unlimited room for future growth in billionaire campaign spending.
Billionaires have become big givers to both political parties, though the edge goes to the GOP, especially during presidential elections. [See Figure 3] In the 2010 election cycle, billionaires gave $19 million to Republicans and $11 million to Democrats. By the 2020 cycle those respective figures were $656 million and $539 million, meaning 55% went to Republicans.
Even in the rarefied world of billionaire campaign funding, a small number of donors dominate. Almost a third (31%) of donations came from just two sources: husband and wife Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and Mike Bloomberg. [See table below]
The Adelsons (Sheldon died in early 2021) were the top billionaire contributors both in 2020 and since 1990—donating $524.2 million since 2000 and $218.2 million during the 2020 election cycle alone. Almost every penny (99.9%) of their political giving went to Republicans, Republican party committees and conservative PACs. The Adelsons alone accounted for 17% of all billionaire campaign contributions since 1990 and 18% during the 2020 election cycle. The liberal leaning Mike Bloomberg was responsible for 10% of all billionaire giving since 1990 and 13% in the 2020 cycle (excluding money he spent on his own presidential campaign).
There are four billionaire households that have donated more than $100 million from 1990 to 2020. They account for 40% of all billionaire campaign contributions during that time. In addition to the Adelsons, they are:
- Bloomberg, who contributed $314 million between 2000 and 2020 and $152.5 million during the 2020 election cycle (excluding the $1.1 billion he spent on his own 2020 presidential campaign).
- Tom and Kathryn Steyer, who donated $311 million between 2012 and 2020 (excluding the $342 million he spent on his 2020 presidential campaign). They contributed $72.1 million during the 2020 election cycle.
- Ken Griffin, who contributed $107 million between 2010 and 2020 and spent $64.7 million during the 2020 election cycle.
Sources: Campaign Contribution Data: OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics and Forbes
Billionaires Lists. Full data set is here.
Data does not include $1.53 billion contributed to their own election campaigns:
Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential campaign: $1,089,225,532
Tom Steyer’s 2020 presidential campaign: $341,776,336
Linda McMahon’s two U.S. Senate races: $100,000,000