In 2017, we investigated the companies who had donated to the Trump campaign or were visibly supporting his administration in some way, focusing on those which were consumer-facing in the UK.
Several years on, with another election approaching, we took another look.
Trump is not short of donor money. The coming US election is set to be easily the most expensive in history, and he has so far raised a lot more than Biden, although Biden is starting to catch up. He hasn’t spent a cent of his own money this time.
But there is a huge amount that we simply don’t know about who is funding Trump, due to the role of ‘dark money’ in US politics. ‘Dark money’ may sound like briefcases stuffed with cash being passed silently on park benches but, in reality, it is perfectly legal and parts of it are counted by the US Federal Election Commission.
Background on US campaign funding
The US refuses to regulate political spending like we do, on the basis that it would violate the first amendment right to free speech. Instead, it supposedly regulates at the other end – donations. It has a labyrinth of regulations about who may give what to whom, and one of the most notable is that corporations are forbidden from donating to political candidates or parties.
However, that is not the end of the story because corporates are allowed to give to groups that engage in what is called ‘outside spending’ – campaigning independently on politicians’ behalf. This includes ‘Super PACs’, which have to declare their donors, and ‘dark money’ groups, which are non-profits which can receive anonymous donations.
In reality, few companies give to Super PACs. There are exceptions, many of them energy companies – Koch has given $8.3 million to Super PACs in this round, and Chevron $2.9 million – all of it to Republicans. But still, in total, out of more than $1 billion raised by Super PACs (and a few other similar entities) in this election so far, only $45 million has come from corporations. The largest individual donor, Thomas Steyer, has donated more on his own (to Democrats) than all corporations put together
It could be that companies just don’t want to donate. But that isn’t the only possible explanation. Corporates have faced some very unwanted attention for giving to Super PACs, and why be bothered with that, when you can go the ‘dark money’ route? Sure, you might want politicians to know to whom they need to address their gratitude. But you also might just want them to win.
While dark money groups have reported spending nearly $1 billion on U.S. elections in the last decade, the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP) (one of Ethical Consumer’s main sources of information in US campaign finance) argues that that figure is likely to be “the tip of the iceberg” because there are types of dark money that don’t need to be reported.
When it comes to individuals, there are, again, some limits on what can be donated to official campaigns, but when it comes to Super PACs, all limits are off.
Small donations do play a role. About 15% of the US population made some kind of political donation in 2016. But a New York Times analysis found that donations from fewer than 400 exceedingly rich families comprised nearly half of all publicly disclosed presidential campaign funding during the 2016 campaign cycle. On the Republican side, more than half of it was accounted for by just 130 families.
Some of these major donors inevitably have links to companies – they’re directors and chairmen and major shareholders. The CRP categorises individual donors according to the company that employs them, on the basis that major donations are likely to be from more senior staff.
But associating the donation with the company is made slightly more complicated by the fact that there can be conflicting donations from within the same company.
For example, one of Trump’s widely publicised biggest public donors during the 2016 campaign was Robert Mercer, co-chief executive officer of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. But at the same time, Renaissance’s founder James Simons is a prominent Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton. Overall, Renaissance staff gave about equally to both parties.