It’s a difficult fundraising environment at the moment even for top-tier candidates, but one strategy that could help campaigns grow their donor bases is targeting more contributions from women.
That’s because female donors continue to lag behind men in their financial support of candidates and office holders in America.
“The persistence of inequality surprises me,” said Kira Sanbonmatsu, a researcher at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) and author of a newly released report titled “The Donor Gap: Raising Women’s Political Voices.”
Drawing on data provided by OpenSecrets, Sanbonmatsu found that between 2019-2022, statewide races other than gubernatorials saw the highest percentage of contributions from women (48 percent).
But when broken down by the percentage of total money raised from donors, that number fell to 31 percent from female contributors. In other words, female donors are giving less frequently and in smaller amounts than men.
What’s more striking is that the percentage of donors to “other statewide races” wasn’t higher in 2022 states considered “abortion battlegrounds.” In fact, Michigan and Wisconsin, which had the highest level of female donor participation in these types of races, only saw 43 percent of the statewide campaigns’ total contributions come from women.
Sanbonmatsu believes this inequity in giving is partly a result of the strategy of campaigns.
“I know that when we think about who is mobilized to turn out to vote, the parties and candidates will look at who voted last time,” she said. “So to the extent that fundraisers are looking at donor lists from last time, you’re going to be less likely to see women on those lists. And so I think that there is some inertia there.”
The economy could also be a factor — at least in the current environment where small-dollar donations are getting harder to wrangle. In 2022, for instance, the pay gap between men and women was still significant, with women earning 82 percent of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
“We know that women earn less, that they command less wealth, and I think that that means they have less income to give to politics,” said Sanbonmatsu. “So if there’s a gender gap in pay, if there are gender differences in wealth, then those are going to have implications for who can contribute and whose voices are heard ultimately in our system.”
Still, the CAWP report isn’t all doom and gloom. At the state level from ’19-’22, the proportion of top fundraising candidates in mixed-gender, non-incumbent primaries who were women was 51 percent for Republicans and 52 percent for Democrats.
For Republican women, that’s an even more significant accomplishment because women make up a smaller percentage of female, state-level legislative politicians. To wit, the report notes that 34 percent of all women state legislators are Republicans and 66 percent are Democrats. Moreover, only 4 in 26 Republican governors are female.
This is noteworthy because the report found that female donors are more likely to give to female candidates — in both parties.
Now, part of the solution to finding more female donors, according to Sanbonmatsu, is to “elevate giving to the same status as voting.”
“In terms of messaging, in terms of trying to persuade women to get involved in this way, I think it’s important to demonstrate that giving is part of politics just as voting is,” she said. “One of the reasons why women might become more interested in giving is when we connect who gives and who runs.
“So we know that we can cast ballots for candidates who are running, but how do those candidates get on the ballot [in the first place] so that we can [vote] for them? They need resources. And so I think helping connect in the eyes of potential donors the relationship between resources and candidacy” is important.
She added: “We know that women don’t always run because they lack the resources. So I think that when women have preferences about who should run, who’d be a good leader, those people need support early on. And part of that is financial.”
Some other successful strategies include giving circles and female giving networks to drive donations to female candidates.
“I think that it is something that could benefit women candidates broadly,” she said.