Meet the megadonors: NYT reveals the elites funding presidential campaigns

A pair of unlikely contenders has brought campaign finance to the fore in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign season. A real estate magnate and reality TV star atop the GOP primary polls has claimed firsthand experience of buying political access, if not outright influence, with his checkbook. A self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, meanwhile, has railed against the “billionaire class” that foots bills on both sides of the political aisle.

To the press, both political outsiders have become colorful foils against which to analyze the fundraising strategies employed by other candidates. But beyond a few oft-repeated names—George Soros and David and Charles Koch are reformers’ most-cited bogeymen, for example—relatively little is reported about the small class of political donors writing the largest of these checks. In many cases, shadowy fundraising infrastructures legally shroud donors in anonymity. In others, the required journalistic legwork of spotlighting contributors becomes an equally tall hurdle. 

That’s what makes The New York Times’ front-page investigation on megadonors an especially important contribution to 2016 campaign coverage. Written by Nicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish, the piece sheds light on the 158 families that gave more than $250,000 to candidates before June 30, providing “nearly half of the early money for efforts to capture the White House.” The Times names these families in a companion piece. Just as important, the paper provides a broader analysis of this donor class—where its members reside, the source of their fortunes, and what they might expect in return.

They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy.

The story led Sunday’s newspaper. But its presentation online once again proves how digital effects can add tremendous value to traditional reporting. The lead graphic shows a looming mountain of green Monopoly pieces piled in front of the White House—120 million tiny plastic homes, approximately one for every American household. But when readers start to scroll, the graphic quickly zooms in on a barely visible collection of 158 red pieces at the mountain’s summit. The technique not only communicates scale in a way that’s instantly understood by readers, but it also serves as a not-so-subtle commentary on who holds power in American democracy. This base layer of context drives home the story’s broader point before Confessore et al break down the data further. 

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What makes the Times’ story particularly useful is that it analyzes these megadonors as a group. They’re mostly self-made and are clustered in a handful of cities. Some share personal or professional ties with the candidates they support, while most work in industries for which 2016’s outcome could have huge financial impacts. Since Big Data and digital tools allow journalists to analyze demographic and political trends in the national electorate, it’s refreshing to see a similar profile of the tiny group that arguably counteracts some of those trends. 

Americans need information like this to understand how our political system functions, especially given the rapid growth of campaign spending over the past four presidential election cycles. “Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign,” the Times writes, “most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.” Of course, whether such knowledge can eventually lead to a change in direction remains an open question. Nevertheless, the Times deserves plaudits for breaking down such a crucial issue—not to mention publishing a political story that doesn’t include the word “Trump.”

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.