Briefing Paper No. 76

Fat Cats and Thin Kittens: Are People Who Make Large Campaign Contributions Different?

By John McAdams and John C. Green
September 25, 2002

Executive Summary

Critics of campaign finance in the United States often direct their fire toward contributors who make large donations. Critics charge that large contributions are unfair, unrepresentative, and undemocratic. Accordingly, they push for “reforms” that would favor small contributions over large, and public money over private donations.

Survey data on contributors contradict that stereotype of contributors of large amounts and their effects on American politics. Overall, “fat cats” differ less from contributors of smaller amounts than critics have alleged. The differences that do exist are mostly unsurprising and generally small in magnitude. Survey results show that both policy liberalism and Democratic partisanship are well represented among contributors of large sums.

The supporters of McCain-Feingold argue that new restrictions on large contributions will profoundly alter American politics for the better. Their claims have no basis in fact. New laws aimed at restricting large donations in favor of smaller ones will have little effect on practical politics.

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John McAdams is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. John C. Green is a professor of political science and director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Politics at the University of Akron.