Traverse City Record-Eagle


July 5, 2014

Fact Check: How many billionaires support political parties?

By Lauren Carroll

Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been on a crusade against what he believes is undue influence from wealthy individuals and corporations in campaigns, enabled in part by Supreme Court decisions in the Citizens United and McCutcheon cases.

A reader pointed us to one of Reid’s latest comments on the subject from the Senate floor.

“The decisions by the Supreme Court have left the American people with a status quo in which one side’s billionaires are pitted against the other side’s billionaires, except one side doesn’t have many billionaires,” he said in a floor speech.

This comment quickly prompted the Republican National Committee to circulate a YouTube video of Reid’s comment, with the mock-incredulous headline, “Harry Reid Claims Democrats Don’t Have Billionaire Backers.”

At first, we thought Reid said, “one side doesn’t have any billionaires” — as did some critics on social media.

If he had said “any,” that would have been a false statement. But a close listening shows that Reid said “many.”

That makes our job harder - how many of America’s 492 billionaires do you need to have the backing of “many” billionaires?

And do Democrats have fewer than Republicans?

We can’t answer the question of which side has more because it’s impossible to know exactly who donates to elections and how much they give. Certain types of political nonprofits are not required to disclose all their funders, although some do so voluntarily.

For example, despite being Reid’s biggest rhetorical targets, brothers David and Charles Koch do not appear as donors on any of the campaign finance information we reviewed.

The two businessmen co-founded Americans for Prosperity, an influential conservative super PAC.

But by looking at some publicly available information - mostly from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, which collects disclosure data from the Federal Election Commission - we were able to get an idea of what role America’s billionaires play in each party.

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