Voting with Money: Political Donations and Trump’s Cabinet Nominees
Remember when Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) asked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos if her family had contributed over $200 million to the Republican Party at her January confirmation hearing? She responded, “That’s possible.”
Unsurprised by her vague answer, Senator Sanders pushed a little further. He asked, “Do you think that…if your family had not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”
But, DeVos isn’t the only Cabinet nominee who has donated to a current senator. So we decided to do some digging: How many senators have accepted money from other Trump Cabinet nominees?
And, to make the question more interesting: What would happen if taking contributions from a nominee disqualified a senator from participating in that person’s confirmation vote?
The interactive graphic above is our answer to these questions.
The graphic explained:
The red and green bar under “with donations” shows the official vote count by which the nominee was confirmed. This is meant to give you some context for the vote count we calculated “without donations.”
The red and green bar under “without donations” represents a vote count that excludes the senators to whom the nominee has donated. Would that nominee have maintained a majority of senate votes after we disqualified the senators to whom the nominee donated? Remember, Article I, section 5 of the Constitution requires that a quorum of 51 senators is present to vote in the first place.
The blue (Democratic senators) and red (Republican senators) dots below the green check mark and the red x represent senators who voted for (green check) or against (red x) the nominee. If a dot is surrounded by a light green highlight, then nominee contributed to that senator. Hover the mouse over each dot to see who the senator is and how the nominee contributed to the senator.
What’s in the data?
Nominee’s contributions to…
- Candidates’ principal campaign committees and/or leadership PACs
- Candidates’ state political party while the candidate held or ran for office
- PACs that then donated to a candidate within six months of the donation*
All information is sourced from official Federal Election Commission (FEC) data through the Individual Contribution Search.
Before we move on to why we included some of this data, keep in mind some of the money we didn’t (or couldn’t) track, which accounts for a significant portion of the money in politics:
- Contributions from close relatives
- Contributions to “dark money” groups (such as politically active nonprofits, trade associations, unions, etc. without disclosure requirements)
- Certain PAC “electioneering communications”**
Why did we include PAC data and state political parties?
Most campaign contribution data sets don’t include PAC donations because it is difficult to trace where each donation ends up. This lack of transparency, however, does not mean we should ignore those contributions altogether. In an interview with The Politic, Noah B. Lindell LAW ’16 YC ‘12, a Legal Fellow at the Campaign Legal Center, remarked, “Looking only at direct contributions to candidates misses where a lot of the money is now, because most of the cash flowing into the process is now flowing into Super PACs, as well as to 501(c)(4)s and other outside groups.”
While we cannot determine whether or not a contribution was intended to support the receiving candidate, The Politic wanted to present the information in a way that separates it from more direct contributions but raises our readers’ awareness.
Does a donation equal influence?
The Politic reached out to the offices of Senators Tim Scott (R-SC), Rand Paul (R-KY), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for their responses to this important question. Only Senator Grassley’s office responded, stating, “Senator Grassley accepts campaign donations that are legal and come with no strings attached. Contributions don’t influence his Senate work.”
We also reached out to some experts for answers. In an interview with The Politic, David M. Primo, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester, emphasized the importance of thinking critically about why Cabinet nominees donate and how that often signals similar policy preferences between nominees and the senators they donate to, rather than a donation inducing a policy preference change.
“To the extent that Cabinet nominees’ donation histories reflect support for individuals, parties, and PACs that are consistent with nominees’ policy preferences (though there are other reasons for giving—including reasons as simple as you are asked to give), it should not be surprising that there is a relationship between giving by a nominee and senatorial support for his or her nomination,” Primo said. “Moreover, the political science literature has for the most part failed to find any evidence that how legislators vote is affected by campaign contributions.”
In contrast, Jennifer Heerwig, Professor of Sociology at SUNY-Stony Brook, noted that there is some research that shows an effect of donations on roll call behavior. She noted “Even if specific individuals or donations have no easily identifiable impact on roll call votes, the interests of those who donate may set the agenda for our political discourse.”
What’s with all the bipartisanship?
Our experts all agreed that bipartisan campaign contributions are neither uncommon nor contradictory.
According to Lindell, “Oftentimes, those who have substantive interests in issues and a lot of money to spend will spend money on members of both parties whom they think could be open to listening to them. So people like Steve Mnuchin or Linda McMahon, who are focused on financial and regulatory issues, will happily give to members of both parties.”
Heerwig referenced her own research: “I’ve found, by tracking individual donors over time, that long-time, repeat donors are far more likely to give to both parties, even controlling for the number of donations given. This suggests that the most influential political players give in ways that appear more access-oriented.”
Have major newspapers covered this data?
The Center for Responsive Politics released an extensive data set on Trump’s political appointee contributions which was covered by a few news outlets such as FiveThirtyEight and VICE. We decided to reach out to the Center and ask why they hadn’t compiled this data for Obama’s first set of Cabinet nominees. In an email to The Politic, Sarah Bryner, Research Director at the Center for Responsive Politics, noted that comparing the donations of Obama and Trump Cabinet nominees side by side might give the wrong impression.
“The major reason we didn’t do this for Obama in 2008 was because of the different campaign finance rules during the 2008 election cycle. That was a pre-Citizens United time, so individual donors were simply not able to donate as much money to federal political groups as they are now,” Bryner said. “Now, the comparison between Obama’s Cabinet and Trump’s Cabinet would give the impression that Obama’s Cabinet members donated very little, when they were actually not allowed to donate as much as Trump’s Cabinet members.”
*If a nominee donated to a PAC for more than two consecutive years, then all donations within that time span were included in the data.
**Groups only disclose “electioneering communications” if the spending: (1) occurs within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary; (2) mentions a clearly identified candidate; (3) is targeted to the relevant electorate; and (4) is in a broadcast medium. According to Lindell, this excludes a substantial amount of spending by Super PACs and dark money groups.