WASHINGTON — Women and small-dollar donors are filling political campaign coffers like never before as the 2020 election cycle's price tag is expected to hit a record-shattering $11 billion.
That's according to a new report from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. The 2020 elections feature not only competitive, high-dollar Senate and House races, but also a presidential campaign that at the start of the year included some free-spending billionaire candidates.
"The 2018 election smashed fundraising records for midterms, and 2020 is going to absolutely crush anything we've ever seen — or imagined," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director, in a statement explaining the report Thursday. "This is already the most expensive presidential election in history and there are still months of election spending to account for. The unanswered question is whether this will be the new normal for future elections."
Women donors, who for decades lagged behind their male counterparts in campaign giving, represent 43% of all 2020 contributors, the center calculated. The group uses software and reporting to identify the genders of political donors.
Female contributors already have outspent their previous record in the 2017-2018 cycle, giving nearly $1.7 billion so far this cycle. In the last cycle, women harnessed the power of the political purse to give more than they had previously to political candidates. And that trend has only increased.
Other takeaways from the report: Democrats and Republicans running for the House and Senate are setting fundraising records. In House races, Democratic candidates have raised $534 million to Republicans' $424 million, while Democrats in Senate contests hauled in $331 million to $280 million for their GOP counterparts.
Small donors, people who give $200 or less, are also having a big moment in terms of influencing the 2020 campaign coffers. Those donors account for 22% of all fundraising, up from 16.7% in 2018 and 14% in 2016, the center said.
It's a bipartisan phenomenon.
The Trump campaign has disclosed more than $250 million from donors giving $200 or less, while the Biden campaign has already raised more money from donors, at least $200 million, than Hillary Clinton's campaign did in 2016.
Big donors, though, are still seeking to sway the elections. Billionaire Mike Bloomberg put in more than $1 billion into his failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and has announced plans to spend big in the final weeks of the campaign season in states such as Florida.
Democrat-aligned outside groups are raising and spending more money, as total spending for those groups has already exceeded $1 billion, the center said.
Traditional and corporate political action committees, which collect donations from company executives and then give to political campaigns, have seen their influence wane in the 2020 cycle, with their donations capped at $5,000. Corporate PACs especially are under pressure as increasing numbers of Democrats refuse to accept such donations. The center concludes that such vehicles may become increasingly less relevant in the political money hierarchy.
The group also found that while the COVID-19 pandemic forced campaigns to modify how they raise (with far fewer in-person events and a lot more Zooms) and spend money, the resulting economic recession hasn't reduced money in politics.
"The one-two punch of a pandemic and economic recession does not create an ideal environment for political fundraising," said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, in a statement. "But donors across the political spectrum are motivated enough right now that they've more than stepped up, and small donors are an increasingly significant portion of the donor pool."