Small-Donor Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization

23 Pages Posted: 5 Dec 2019 Last revised: 17 Jan 2020

Date Written: November 19, 2019


In just the last few years, the communications revolution has led to a dramatic explosion in small-donor contributions to national election campaigns. Many campaign finance reformers and scholars celebrate this development in glowing terms: small donations will "reclaim our republic", will "restore citizens to their rightful pre-eminent place in our democracy," and will "significantly enhance the quality of democracy in the United States."

Thus, the Democratic Party vision of campaign-finance reform has moved away from traditional public financing to small-donor based matching programs. The comprehensive, first bill the Democratic House passed would transform national elections by providing $6 in public funds for every dollar a candidate raises from small donors (defined as those who contribute less than $200 to that candidate). Similarly, one of only two criteria the Democratic Party now uses to determine which presidential candidates will be on the debate stage is the number of unique small donors that have contributed to a candidate.

But the role of the internet in enabling this explosion of small-donor contributions is subject to many of the same dynamics we have come to associate with the effects of the internet on democracy more generally. After initial enthusiasm that viewed the internet as heralding the rise of a more participatory, unmediated, and egalitarian democracy we have moved to dystopian anxiety about social media's tendencies to fuel political polarization, reward extremism, encourage a culture of outrage, and generally contribute to the degradation of civil political discourse. And the facilitation of small-donor contributions through the internet is subject to these same dynamics.

This essay, the first to question the reform enthusiasm for small-donor campaign finance reform, explores the evidence that small donors tend to fuel ideologically more extreme, rather than more moderate, candidates. This evidence includes a unique assessment of the candidates who benefited most from small donations in the 2018 midterms. After describing the ways in which the communications revolution is reshaping campaign finance, the essay identifies particular features of the bill the House passed that would enhance the tendency of small donations to foster more ideological extreme candidates.

Advocates of small-donor based campaign-finance reform emphasize the benefits it offers in diluting the power of large donors, encouraging broader political participation, and making election finance more egalitarian. But these benefits might have be weighed against the tendency of such reform to contribute further to the polarization of American democracy. Traditional public financing is not subject to these same tradeoffs because it does not disproportionately benefit candidates from the ideological wings of the parties. This essay presses for a fuller discussion of whether small-donor campaign finance reform will further hollow out the center in American politics.

Keywords: campaign finance, political participation, political polarization, small donors. democracy, elections

Suggested Citation

Pildes, Richard H., Small-Donor Based Campaign-Finance Reform and Political Polarization (November 19, 2019). Yale Law Journal F., Vol. 129, 2019-20, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-01, Available at SSRN:

Richard H. Pildes (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
(212) 998-6377 (Phone)
(212) 995-4341 (Fax)

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