Clinton's Biggest Political Weakness Has An Upside

From soccer moms to single lady “Beyonce voters,” female voting blocs are renamed and newly coveted with each election cycle. But when it comes to deep pockets and serious influence, many still picture old white men. Yet the 2016 election cycle has revealed that women have serious political fundraising chops and deep pockets of their own. According to The New York Times, a record 43 percent of all reported contributions to federal candidates have come from women, and women have provided 20 percent of all individual contributions to super PACs in this cycle — compared with just 1 percent in 2010. While there are a number of reasons for this spike, one factor came up repeatedly in my interviews with political fundraising groups and experts: Hillary Clinton.

Allida Black, a research professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, is a “bundler” for Hillary Clinton (a volunteer fundraiser who solicits checks from friends and business associates). She tells me in an email she has raised more than $322,000 for Clinton, but notes that “almost half of my donors wrote checks under $250, or took multiple months to contribute their $2,700 to the primary campaign.” She urges me in an email to look at more than just big donors. “Not all bundlers have ‘deep pockets.’ Many, like me, have ‘deep commitments’ and raise funds from new lower-dollar sources, as well as from women who can write higher checks.”

“I think women on all sides of the political spectrum are heavily engaged in this election — with their wallets as well as their votes,” Black tells me. “And I strongly suspect that just as the women's vote will be one of the key determinants in the electoral outcome, so will their political contributions. I also suspect that Democratic women will be more motivated to contribute this election. Hillary's potential nomination will inspire that … I am sure women will contribute to [Trump’s] campaign, but nowhere near in the numbers that Hillary will inspire or has generated.” The Trump campaign did not return my request for comment.

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Hillary for America spokeswoman Rebecca Chalif stresses in an email that the Clinton campaign values contributions of time as well as money. "We are proud to have the support of a broad coalition of voters, including women, across the country who have joined us to make phone calls, knock on doors and donate to the campaign."

According to Heath Brown, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Clinton's candidacy is one of the prime things spurring more women to give. He notes other factors as well, such as how they simply have the capacity to give more and in greater numbers. “Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t nearly as many women CEOs and executive-class women as there are today,” he tells me. Still, he sees Clinton's presence as a major influence on female donations. In 2016, we have the “most prominent woman candidate running for president in the history of the country," and and with it, "more opportunities for women to get involved and champion a woman than ever before.”

This point is echoed by Jess McIntosh, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, a PAC dedicated to electing female, pro-choice Democratic candidates. She tells me in an email that she credits the spike in fundraising she's witnessed to Clinton's presidential campaign: "EMILY’s List has been cultivating women donors for 30 years — and we are on track to have our most successful year ever in 2016. Not only do we have the opportunity to elect the first woman President ... she’s running against the worst misogynist to run in our lifetimes. No wonder women are so engaged!”

"It’s no surprise that women are stepping up against Trump," Marge Baker, executive vice president of the progressive nonprofit People for the American Way (PFAW), tells me. "That’s especially true given that more and more women have the wherewithal to do so."

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As McIntosh and Baker suggest, Trump — who has called women "fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals" — may be a boon to Clinton's fundraising efforts. In the wake of Trump's accusation that the former secretary of state was playing the "woman card" last month, her campaign brought in $2.4 million in the space of a few days "through emails and the purchase of related products."

Even before Clinton's 2016 presidential run, research showed that female political donors leaned Democratic, regardless of whether the candidate was male or female. Sarah Bryner, research director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, tells me in an email, “There is certainly evidence that women donors tend to favor Democratic candidates and left-leaning super PACs.” In 2012, President Obama relied more heavily on female contributors than any general election presidential candidate since at least 1988. By the end of 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders had raised far more money from individual women than Clinton had. If you compare donors who gave $200 or more to Sanders to those who gave $200 or more to Clinton, a higher percentage of Clinton's donors were women. But most of Sanders' contributors gave less than $200, and he had more individual contributors.

Democratic candidates in general depend on the support of women donors, but female ones are especially reliant on women. According to a 2013 report coauthored by Bryner, “female Democrats rely most heavily (and male Republicans, the least) on the support of female contributors. That's been the case since 1990.”

Even so, Bryner tells me, “There are deep-pocketed female donors supporting candidates on both ends of the political spectrum." And according to her report, “As politics has become more polarized, so too have the patterns of donations from women.”

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That explains why it's not only Democrats who benefit when women give. As The New York Times noted, two of the biggest contributors to super PACs involved in the Republican primaries are Diane Hendricks, "the billionaire chief executive of a Wisconsin-based roofing and building supplies company," and Karen Buchwald Wright, "the head of an Ohio company that makes compressors for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking." It's no surprise that wealthy businesswomen like Hendricks and Wright give heavily to Republican causes. In 2012, women voters preferred President Obama to GOP candidate Mitt Romney by a wide margin — except for the top 1 percent of female earners, who preferred Romney.


While there's something exciting about seeing more women get involved in political giving, many voters, especially Democratic ones, think money already plays too big of a role in politics. Clinton is often criticized for her reliance on super PACs and well-heeled donors — in contrast to Sanders, who has made small-dollar donors a cornerstone of his campaign. Do Clinton's wealthy friends and big-dollar fundraising efforts, like the one starring George and Amal Clooney which cost $353,400 per couple to attend, run the risk of turning off voters who can only dream of that kind of money, let alone spend it on a single dinner?

Liza Featherstone, a contributing editor to The Nation and editor of False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton , tells me "It's potentially a problem for Hillary that [support from women donors] is such a big talking point for her, and yet what she’s really talking about are these very large donors. Because it raises the question that always comes up any time Hillary is claiming to represent women in general: 'Which women?'"

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However, Brown tells me that although "polling suggests that large portions of both Democrats and Republicans — women and men — deplore the role big money plays in politics" and "nearly all voters find lavish fundraisers despicable," the issue is "not a high priority for most voters." He adds that "a candidate's views and record on fighting terrorism, creating jobs, and providing quality health care likely determine more about voting decisions," and that "most candidates believe [lavish fundraisers] are a risk worth taking for which they won't be punished on Election Day."

“It’s critically important that we reduce the influence of big money in politics," Baker tells me. "But as long as the current system is in place, I don't think it's reasonable to expect anyone interested in the outcome of our elections to sit it out, and that includes women donors.” Female donors may not necessarily approve of the big money game — but that doesn't mean they're going to stay on the sidelines.

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