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Black donors gave $41M to 2020 Democrats last year, with Sanders topping the list

A new report shines a light on a party and candidates dependent on black voters but deficient in diversity when it comes to strategy, policy and spending.
Image: Chicago Black Vote
Voters cast their ballots at a polling place in downtown Chicago on April 2, 2019.Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP - Getty Images file

Black Americans donated nearly $41 million last year to Democratic presidential candidates, with Bernie Sanders topping the list, according to a new report.

The total amount donated was nearly 13 percent of what all candidates collected through an online donor platform handling most donations made to Democrats.

The study, conducted by Plus Three, a minority-owned technology and fundraising firm, points to an electorate giving to presidential candidates at a level almost equal to their proportion of the American population and shows that those donations don't necessarily correlate with how those same donors have voted in the primary season.

Described as a first of its kind tally of black political contributions, the report shines a light on a party and presidential candidates dependent on black voters, open to their donations but deficient in diversity when it comes to influencing campaign strategy, policy priorities or spending decisions.

The disparity in black donations, and in overall fundraising, between Sanders and Biden was highlighted in Sunday night's presidential debate, when Sanders at least twice drew attention to an outside group spending large sums to run attack ads against him and in support of Biden. Biden, in turn, insisted that he, the front-runner for the nomination, really has not raised that much.

Plus Three researchers examined more than 1.94 million donations from black donors and found that the average amount given to presidential candidates was $21.03. Latinos contributed almost $23.7 million to Democratic presidential candidates last year, often in small-dollar amounts averaging $15.75, according to an earlier Plus Three analysis.

The newreport — commissioned by the Collective PAC, an organization working to boost the number of black officeholders — examined more than 13 million donor records from Actblue, an online donations platform that, in recent election cycles, collected about 95 percent of all donations made to Democratic candidates. But unlike individual campaigns, which are only required to report donations of $200 or more to the Federal Election Commission, ActBlue captures details about those giving as little as a dollar.

Image: Super Tuesday voters
Fayetteville State University students get off a Black Votes Matter bus at Smith Recreation Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on March 3, 2020.Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images file

To pinpoint the nearly 2 million donations likely made by black donors, Plus Three tallied only contributions coming from people with the 162,255 most common surnames used by black people in the United States, according to U.S. census data. Then the study's authors culled this group down to those who also live in a ZIP code where census data indicates 20 percent or more of all residents are black. This method is similar to the way that advertisers target customers, campaigns target voters and regulators have attempted to monitor fairness in lending.

When it comes to presidential candidate fundraising, Sanders — whose campaign looks to be in trouble after sweeping loses in Tuesday's primaries — has proven to be the most effective of all the Democratic candidates, raising $132.56 million from all donors on ActBlue by the end of 2019. Biden in comparison raised just $68.28 million. That pattern has continued through 2020 fundraising.

Among black donors, Sanders raised $10.5 million, almost $4 million more than Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Pete Buttigieg collected $6.07 million, while Biden's $3.65 million put him in fourth place. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, at $2.99 million, was in fifth with black donors, followed in ninth by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, with $1.24 million.

"Sanders performed better with Latino and African American donors because of the sheer scale of his base of fundraising," Juan M. Proaño, Plus Three CEO and co-founder, who conducted the study, said. "Biden will begin to do better now that he is the front-runner and his fundraising numbers should increase accordingly. However, Biden still has a major fundraising problem because he does not have the team or the email list needed to capitalize on this sudden success."

In 2019, Sanders raised 14.77 percent of his donations from black donors on ActBlue. Biden collected 13.29 percent of his donations from black donors using the platform.

"At the presidential level those not immediately in love with a candidate will take a wait-and-see approach, especially in 2019 when there were 20-plus candidates," said Marvin King, an associate professor of political science at Mississippi State University, who researches political donations and their impact.

"The same happened really in 2008. The polling with black voters and the donations from black donors shot up for Obama after Iowa," King said. "They were like, we will get on your train but show me something first."

Black candidates often experience fundraising difficulties due to vast differences in the average income between white and black households, King said.

Case in point: Mississippi. There, 40 percent of all residents and about 66 percent of all Democratic voters are black. Black candidates have seen some success at the local level but no black elected official has held a statewide office since 1890. In 2019, Republicans controlled the Mississippi House, state Senate and governor's offices, both U.S. Senate seats and all but one of the state's four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

That is one reason that Quentin James helped found the Collective PAC in 2016. James, the group's president, wanted to find a way to pool resources and elect black, progressive candidates, including those running in red states.

"Cory and Kamala said that it was money that was the biggest problem for their campaigns," James said. "We commissioned this study because we wanted to see where is black money going in this cycle and also continue to evaluate how it is being used."

In the 2018 election cycle, the more than 200,000 black donors on Collective PAC's contact list funneled $7.5 million into campaigns and elected 55 candidates across the country.

The study's findings call into question the investments that political candidates and parties routinely make in pursuit of black voters, James said. Together, black and Latino donors contributed about $100 million to Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.

Studies released by the political organization Power Pac Plus found that in 2012 and 2016, the Democratic Party's three major election arms spent 98 percent of their campaign dollars with white-owned companies.

"People of color are giving substantially despite the systematic challenges around wealth and well being in this country," James said. "We are still not seeing or hearing enough from the candidates and their campaigns from a policy perspective or a spending and investing perspective."

Campaigns continue to invest large amounts in television and other ads, which also funnel money into almost all white-owned firms. And they tend to spend comparatively little with the get-out-the-vote operations and other types of political businesses owned by black and Latino consultants with proven expertise, said Proaño, who has worked on four Democratic presidential campaigns.

That might have closed the gap in a recent spate of narrow races, he said, . He pointed to several races, including in 2018, when Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, lost the Georgia governor's race by 1.4 points (some, Including Abrams, insist voter suppression was a significant factor); and then-Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, lost a Senate race in Texas by 2.6 points.

What campaigns continue to do as they fundraise, James said, is think in terms of a short and fairly static list of black billionaires and business owners.

"The immediate thing, to this day is, let's call Oprah and Tyler," he said, referring to Tyler Perry, the movie mogul, "not the grassroots person who can give $5 a month. There's a lot more out there to be tapped."