TLDR: Wealth and political giving are extremely concentrated in Berkeley.
With the 2020 primaries around the corner, I thought I’d dig up some research I did on Berkeley’s 2016 election spending, and finally publish it.
While Bernie got more of Berkeley’s primary votes than Hillary in 2016 (54% vs 46%), our donors gave her triple the money ($2.8 vs $.9 million). What does this mean for 2020? Whatever you think of the candidates, looking at the 2016 numbers is pretty informative.
In 2016, Berkeley’s affluent (top 1%) gave most of the money
Berkeley residents gave a lot of money in the election. But despite all the talk about $27 contributions, the bulk of the money was given by a mere one percent of Berkeley’s population, in chunks of $1,000 or more. Only about nine percent of the population made any contribution at all in the presidential or congressional elections.
Berkeley’s 2016 top 40 donors and recipients
It’s surprisingly easy to see who gave what, and to which PACs, on the FEC website. I’ve redacted unique and last names here for privacy. The table below shows the top 40 (out of 10,589) Berkeley contributors by amount, candidates/PACs by amount received from Berkeley residents, and top employers of those who contributed (’employer’ is required on the contribution forms).
The data I crunched doesn’t include so-called ‘dark money,’ or smaller contributions under $200 which aren’t reported to the FEC. It does however include contributions under $200 made to Bernie via ActBlue, which reported all of its data to the FEC.
Tracking which candidates actually benefited from all this money is much more difficult than determining who contributed it, because to get around contribution limits, most big-dollar giving is funneled through dozens of PACs and committees which don’t report in detail how they spend it.
Berkeley’s 2016 contributions distribution curve
Here’s the distribution analysis of Berkeley residents’ 2016 federal election contributions… and the Bernie vs. Hillary split.
As you can see, the bulk of the money from Berkeley’s 10,589 contributors came from the top 1% (106 people), 10% (1060) and 25% (2650) buckets. The top 1% gave $8,100 or more (avg. $27,132); The top 10% gave $1,250 or more (avg. $5,322); and the top 25% gave $428 or more (avg. $2,562). The bottom 75% of contributors, who accounted for only 10% of the money, averaged a $99 donation.
This was consistent with overall campaign contributions in the election, according to this chart by the Center for Responsive Politics:
2016 Berkeley vs. other Bay Area cities comparison
Here’s how Berkeley stacked up in 2016 election contributions vs four other Bay Area cities. I combined Palo Alto and Menlo Park because their population together roughly equals Berkeley’s.
Although Berkeley led the field in participation (percent of residents contributing), and almost beat Oakland in total dollars, it was trounced in total and per-capita dollars by the billionaires in San Francisco and Palo Alto/Menlo. In particular, Jim Steyer in San Francisco contributed over $40M, and a variety of Facebook, Apple and other tech moguls gave millions, or hundreds of thousands, each.
Yes, you can try this at home
If you want to play around with this data yourself, for Berkeley or any other city, simply go to the FEC portal, type in Berkeley (see my exact query), and download the complete CSV file (in this case, 98,820 contributions from 10,589 individuals). You can then open the 50-column CSV file in Excel, and using pivot tables, which aren’t hard to learn, generate a lot of interesting views.
I recommend having a lot of caffeine or dark chocolate on hand, plus a calculator… this is dense data, and it takes time and requires doing some supplemental math to process. But it’s worth it, to get a real understanding what’s going on. Dark money aside, this FEC portal is a great example of openness and transparency in a world which could use much more of that.
Disclosure: I volunteered on both the Bernie and Hillary campaigns in 2015/16, first for Bernie in the primary, then for Hillary in the general election.