An analysis of Ann Arbor, U-M and Michigan campaign donations

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 8:49pm

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The 2020 Democratic primaries, which started off with 28 candidates, narrowed down to two major contenders – former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., with Biden winning the Michigan primary on Tuesday. Money in politics has played a divisive role in the election, with candidates differing in their methods for raising money. 

Grassroots campaigns such as Sanders’s garnered an average donation of $18.53, while other candidates such as Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg relied on their personal wealth to catapult them onto the national stage. 

When comparing all campaign donations from across the state of Michigan, Ann Arbor was the city that donated the most money to presidential campaigns, according to the Federal Election Commission. In total, Ann Arbor donated $480,943 in 2019, with each donation averaging $63.66. That’s more than two times as many donations as Grand Rapids, the second-highest donating city in the state, whose donations equaled $245,181. The city with the third most donations was Detroit, with $183,974. All of these figures were recorded from July 1, 2018 to Dec. 31, 2019. 


Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., received the most money from University of Michigan employees, raising $30,854. Following closely in second and third place for most contributions was Sanders, raising $28,357, and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, raising $25,090.

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The considerable amount of money Warren raised prior to her departure from the race last week is consistent with polls that showed the candidate in first place standing among white college-educated graduates. Warren also received the most donations from Democrats who have advanced degrees. 

Ann Arbor has been named the most well-educated city in the country, with the highest percentage of people with high school, associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate/professional degrees, data that suggests that Warren would likely have found a captive base of voters in Ann Arbor.

LSA senior Martha Abrams said she believed Warren appealed to a lot of students due to her blend of progressive politics like those championed by Sanders and pragmatic policy initiatives modeled by Biden.

“Bernie for a lot of people, I think, especially in the early months of his campaign … seemed more like a radical progressive than I think a lot of people were prepared for,” Abrams said. “I think Warren was a more … palatable candidate. I also definitely think that having a female candidate, especially one who’s so deeply experienced in the political arena, and so consistent, and a front-runner always, was really appealing to a lot of people.”

When analyzing the amount of individual contributions in Ann Arbor and by U-M employees, Sanders finished in first in both categories. He received 2,859 contributions from Ann Arbor residents and 521 contributions from U-M employees, whereas Warren received 1,685 contributions from Ann Arbor residents and 311 from U-M employees. Sanders’s campaign has made a point of relying on smaller-dollar contributions since 2016.

Professor Richard Hall of the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy discussed how individual contributions often come from the most extreme ends of each political party. He explained how Sanders’s grassroots campaign contributions could have significantly helped Sanders in the Michigan primary. 

“I think one thing we know is that the activists in a party and including the individual donors to candidates tend to be at the extremes …  and (these) tend to be the people who turnout in primaries,” Hall said. “There is some reason to think that that bodes well for Sanders.”

Rackham student Nathan John was standing outside the Union on primary day campaigning for Sanders. He said the spirit of Sanders’s campaign appealed to him. 

“I think that Bernie is running a very grassroots oriented campaign, and he’s for me. The reason why I’m so passionate about him is that he does not accept money from billionaires,” John said. “I think it says that he’s a man of the people and someone that people are willing to get behind. It shows that we can change politics by focusing on individuals or not corporations.”

According to a Michigan Daily analysis of campaign finance records, in comparing Ann Arbor to the state of Michigan overall, the trends shift slightly, as the overall Democratic candidate with the highest contributions is Sanders with $802,595.66 in 2019, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who received $730,651.04 in 2019, before dropping out of the race in early March. Then, Warren came in third place with $462,177.22 and Joe Biden came in fourth with $408,175.22, both in 2019.

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Hall noted that money from the political establishment has been flooding into Biden’s campaign since Super Tuesday. And with moderates such as Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar raising a total of more than $1,270,091.51 in Michigan, it was unclear which way the results of the primary would lean up until the polls closed Tuesday. 

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Design by Jonathan Walsh

Money doesn’t always translate to electoral success. If it did, Sec. Hillary Clinton would have won the Michigan primary in 2016. Clinton raised almost triple the amount of what Sanders raised.

At the time, polls predicted that Hillary Clinton had a 25-point lead over Sanders in the Michigan Primary. Polling website FiveThirtyEight went as far as predicting that Clinton had a 99 percent chance of winning Michigan. Yet, Sanders won the Michigan 2016 Democratic Primary with 49.8 percent of the votes compared to Clinton, who received just 48.3 percent of the vote.

As an expert in campaign finance, Hall noted that money doesn’t tell the whole story. While funding is necessary to enter a national presidential race, Hall explained that past elections show throwing money at a campaign simply isn’t enough to win. 

“It is true that Bloomberg made a run because he spent all that money. But in the end, he lost, you know, pretty handily,” Hall said. “(Trump was) outspent by … three or four of his competitors and super PACs are spending on behalf of … Bush and Rubio in a way they weren't for Trump.”

Hall argued that money doesn’t lead to the big wins that people imagine. 

“It’s not obvious that the money has a big effect,” Hall said. “Obviously, you have to have some money to get in the race but you know, it’s not clear how much it matters.”

Additionally, the momentum and circumstances that helped Sanders win in 2016 are not as evident in the 2020 primaries against Joe Biden. In a New York Times interview, Brandon Dillon, a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, stated that Sanders is no longer the “novelty” he was four years ago. 

“I know people personally who voted for Bernie because they wanted to send a message to Hillary,” Dillion said in the interview. 

Dillon said people are more worried about a candidate’s electability and ability to beat Trump now. 

“People just want to win because we know who our opponent is and what he can do if he gets another four years,” Dillon continued.

After Warren suspended her campaign in early March without endorsing Sanders or Biden, her voters were torn. In a rally in Ann Arbor three days before the primary, Sanders stated Michigan was the most important state on the March 11, primaries, urging voters that the only way to beat the political establishment was to vote on Tuesday.

“I understand that Joe Biden has the support of the entire political establishment. I got that,” Sanders said. “But we have the support of some of the strongest grassroots movements in this country, and I would 100 times over prefer to have grassroots support than establishment support.”

Hall adds that similarly to Trump, Sanders is raising a significant amount of money from individual donors. 

“(It’s) just not clear how much … difference and that's going to make (or if) it's going to be enough to help him carry the day … like it did in Michigan for him four years ago,” Hall said. 

Tuesday’s results affirmed Hall’s argument. Despite his massive campaign push in the final weekend and his hundreds of thousands of individual contributions, Sanders’s grassroots campaign was not enough for a victory in Michigan.