Year of Graduation


Level of Access

Open Access Thesis

Embargo Period


Department or Program

Government and Legal Studies

First Advisor

Michael Franz


Small donors have provided an increased share of total campaign contributions in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 U.S. federal election cycles, including about $3 billion of the $14.4 billion raised in 2020. Campaign funding is still dominated by an influential set of large donors, but small donations may be the basis for an effective response to the disproportionate amount of “big money” in politics. This study investigates whether candidates who are more extreme perform better with small donors, and then examines the impact of small donations and overall funding on election results. These analyses were performed using linear sum-of-squares regression models.

The results in Chapter 2 show that candidates who are more politically-extreme receive more of their funding from small donations, but perform worse in general elections when fundraising is equal. Chapter 3 shows that small donations do not have an impact on candidate performance in general elections more generally, but candidates who outraise their opponent also outperform relative to the district’s partisan lean. However, that effect disappears when looking only at elections decided by less than 10 percent of the vote.

These results suggest that small donors are more likely to support candidates who are more politically polarized, but the effects of small donors on the makeup of Congress is marginal at best, at least as far as general election outcomes are concerned. The project concludes by considering reform proposals that seek to broaden the pool of Americans who donate small sums to political candidates.