Money Talks: A Look At Female Donors’ Favorite Presidential Candidates

Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.

If you want to talk about putting your money where your mouth is, then look no further than the historic 2018 midterm election. Women donated a record amount to political candidates in the most expensive midterm race in history. And there are signs that their political influence is only going to grow. 

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Overall, almost 100,000 women gave amounts over $200 to Democratic and Republican 2020 presidential candidates by the end of the second quarter of 2019, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, based on Federal Election Commission data. This is about four times the number of female donors at this point during the 2016 election. (Gender was generally not reported for contributions under $200, and experts expect the number of female donors to grow once the under-$200 donations data is available.)

While many women have said that they will not vote for a candidate based on gender — and, in fact, they are donating in droves across the board — the numbers show that there’s enough enthusiasm for the idea of a female nominee to keep the credit cards swiping. Now, with a record number of women running for president, experts say that women are still enthusiastically shelling out to the female candidates, pearl-clutching about “electability” be damned.

“There are an awful lot of women who are writing small checks now,” says Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. “Even if they’re writing a check for $5 or $10, they’re putting their money where their ideology is.” 

Female Democratic candidates, for the most part, have higher proportions of female donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democratic women received 48% (a total of $15.9 million for six candidates) from women vs. Democratic men, who have received 36% ($25 million for 17 candidates) from women. 

The numbers show that women are spreading their donations among the various female candidates, according to the Center’s data. With five female candidates left following Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s recent dropout — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Marianne Williamson, and Tulsi Gabbard — this is the first time there are multiple women in the race for the highest office, so women’s spending behavior is particularly relevant here. 

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Kamala Harris counts women as 53% of her donor base and has raised $6.6 million from 8,633 donors, Elizabeth Warren counts women as 50% of her donor base and has raised $3.8 million from 12,271 donors, and Amy Klobuchar counts women as 47% of her donor base and has raised $2.5 million from 2,663 donors. Gillibrand, who recently left the race, touted her 55%-female donor base as an asset, and had founded female donor circles in several cities around the country — circles many of whose members then went on to donate to the other female candidates, a strategy Gillibrand supported. “‘If you want a woman to be on the ticket, give to all of them.’ That’s what she always says,” Stefanie Conahan, Gillibrand’s finance director, told Politico in April. By contrast, candidates like Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg all have a female donor base in the 30-40% range.

Among the female candidates, it’s the two who haven’t reached the threshold to make the stage for the September debate — 2% in polls and 130,000 individual donors — who are the outliers when it comes to donor breakdown by gender. 

Marianne Williamson has the highest proportion of donors who are women at 72%, at 1,132 donors and $712,660 total. Also notably, only 21.6% of Tulsi Gabbard’s donors are women (377 donors, $314,849), the lowest proportion among any Democratic candidate. 

By the way, pink MAGA hats are out in full force, too: President Donald Trump had the highest number of female donors this year, at 30,763, with 41% of his donors women and a total of almost $12 million. This is up from 2016, when less than 29% of his contributions came from women. (But, of course, Republican women have fewer candidates among whom to spread their money.)

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“What’s surprising to many people is that Donald Trump is doing well with female donors,” Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics, tells Refinery29. “That’s a change from his first election and it’s a little bit counter to the trend.” 

One potential reason could be that Trump, who has been fundraising for his reelection campaign since he took office, has made deliberate overtures to suburban women in districts that swung Democratic in 2018 on platforms like Facebook, with ads focusing on Melania Trump’s “Be Best” initiative, Ivanka Trump’s work on paid family leave, and women and the second amendment. 

Republican or Democrat, the impact of the rise of the female donor has yet to be fully analyzed. Men, specifically white men, still make up a disproportionate amount of donors to federal elections (57% despite only being 35% of the population), according to research from Demos.

With more women donating, we could see changes in the ways issues that concern them are discussed. Women’s money makes an impact on what issues get elevated to the mainstream, and has the potential to shape questions around reproductive rights, paid family leave, child care, and other policies. 

There are also still questions around the impact of small donors. The Center for Responsive Politics is currently processing the data for small (under-$200) donors, made available by ActBlue, the online fundraising software used by most Democrats. Once that is available, says Bryner, we will have a lot more insight into women’s donation behavior, which is important given that: a) Women historically make up the majority of small donors, b) Recent analysis showed that over half the money raised by Democratic 2020 candidates has been from small donors (compared to under a third of Democratic fundraising in 2016).

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“Generally, the smaller the donation, the more likely it is to come from a woman,” Bryner says. “I also think this small-donor data will provide us with many answers as to what the donation landscape looks like, because so many Democrats are eschewing big PAC donations. If it is the case that these small donors are largely female, you could be looking at a time when women donors are driving political fundraising in a way we’ve never seen.”

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