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Saturday, July 20, 2024
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    HomePoliticsWhy isn’t everyone giving presidential candidates $75 million?

    Why isn’t everyone giving presidential candidates $75 million?

    One day, perhaps, the residents of Banner County, Neb. — a rural county in that state’s panhandle — might wake up and suddenly feel generous. They might call a meeting, bringing every resident in to the county courthouse in Harrisburg, where an agreement is reached: Every one of them would give an entire year’s salary to a candidate for president.

    Per capita personal income in the county was a bit north of $61,000 in 2022, and (including the 4 in 10 residents who are under 18 or over retirement age) there are just under 700 people living in the county. So that’s a hefty $42.2 million that Banner County could donate to a political action committee backing a candidate for president — presumably Donald Trump, who won there in 2020 by a 78-point margin.

    That remarkable act of generosity, an entire county giving its entire per capita income to a presidential candidate, would be unusual, certainly. It would also be 56 cents contributed for every dollar of the $75 million that billionaire Timothy Mellon gave to a Donald Trump super PAC this cycle.

    There are some Americans who are so rich that it is hard to convey their wealth in a meaningful way. Our brains evolved to figure out things that can be counted in tens or hundreds. Conceptualizing the difference between a million and a billion is nearly impossible.

    It’s hard even to convey the scale of $75 million, an amount that gets slotted into Mellon’s political-contribution line-item on his budget. Here’s an attempt: If you had 75 million pennies, it would weigh about as much as a blue whale. If you had $75 million in pennies, it would weigh 60 percent more than all of the trash produced in New York City in a day.

    Or we can put it in the context of America. There are 48 counties that could do what Banner County did in our hypothetical — pool their per capita annual income for every resident — and still come up short of Mellon’s $75 million.

    Cumulatively, they voted for Trump in 2020 by a 60-point margin. Only four voted for Joe Biden; three of them are majority non-White.

    President Biden has some big donors too, of course. The most recent reporting period indicated that former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg gave a PAC supporting the incumbent $20 million. There are five counties in the U.S. that couldn’t match that total if all of their residents chipped in their annual incomes.

    Perhaps this is a little abstract for you. Fair enough. What if you alone wanted to save up your annual income to donate to a candidate? We made the tool below that allows you to see how many years of income you’d need to set aside, spending money on nothing else, to match the generosity of Mellon or Bloomberg.

    An average Banner County resident would just need to save their income for a bit more than a millennium. Had they started in the year 795, during the reign of Charlemagne, they’d be ready to match Mellon’s contribution now.

    This is so much money, in fact, that it is noticeably useful to the presidential campaigns themselves. That’s not easy to do, to give so much money to one of the most expensive political efforts in the world that it dramatically changes what the campaign is able to do. But Mellon-level giving does that. In 2016, for example, presidential campaigns spent about $761 million on television ads — and that includes every candidate in both the general and the primary. Mellon gave the Trump-allied PAC MAGA Inc. one-tenth of that total.

    Another lens: by the end of May, just over five months until Election Day, Trump’s campaign reported having spent $83 million on literally everything it had done. If Mellon had given to the campaign (which he didn’t and couldn’t, given contribution limits), he would have offset 90 percent of their spending. Of course, they would probably just have spent more, which is what MAGA Inc. is going to do.

    The general idea behind the unfettered ability of very rich people to contribute to political campaigns is that their money allows them to exercise political speech, and that the spending is therefore protected by the First Amendment. OK, fine. But the gap between the richest Americans and those in the middle continues to stretch wider. (In 1963, someone in the 99th percentile was worth 35 times as much as someone in the 50th percentile of wealth. In 2022, they were worth 70 times as much.) That means that richer people are able to have their free speech heard much more easily and robustly than poorer people.

    Like the residents of Banner County — who, by the national standard, aren’t poor. By the Mellon/Bloomberg standard, though, they very much are.

    Speaking generally, of course. Maybe one of them has been squirreling away his income for the past 1,200 years and is about to put Timothy Mellon’s generosity to shame.

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