Retiree Political Contributions

If, like me, you sometimes shake your head at how much money federal congressional campaigns raise and wonder where all of that cash comes from, an interesting article from the Business Insider has a partial answer: retirees. The Insider reviewed congressional campaign contribution records from the 2000 election to the present and found that people who identify as retired are an extremely potent fundraising source, both in terms of number of contributions and total dollars contributed.

The data is pretty amazing. In the 2019-2020 election cycle, for example, more than 1 million retirees made a contribution of $200 or more (the contribution level that triggers reporting requirements) to congressional campaigns and political committees. The amount of money retirees are donating is increasing, too. For years, retirees contributed about one-tenth of campaign funds, but since 2016 that number has grown, and by 2020 seniors had given more than 20 percent of all contributions–shelling out a whopping $378 million to campaigns and PACs. Because only donations of $200 or more are reported, it’s possible that if you counted small-money contributions, the total amount bankrolled by retirees would be even greater. And in case you’re wondering, the retirement funding is a bipartisan phenomenon, with candidates in both parties receiving increasing amounts of contributions.

Not surprisingly, political campaigns have responded by targeting potential retiree donors with direct mail, phone calls, and texts. Political campaigns can always be expected to follow the same line of thinking employed by famed thief Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks responded: “Because that’s where the money is.” The contribution record of retirees makes it pretty clear that their retirement funds are a ready source of cash.

The rising role of retirees in political campaigns is intriguing. People who have carefully saved for their retirement obviously have money at hand during their golden years, but I wouldn’t have predicted that they would be spending it on politics–rather than gifting family members, taking those retirement trips they hoped to enjoy, or just guarding their nest egg to make absolutely sure they’ve got enough to live on. And it isn’t exactly clear why retiree donations are increasing. One source quoted in the article speculated that the increasing rancor and heightened levels of scare-mongering in American politics might have prompted more contributions from older Americans, but no one knows for sure.

I find myself wondering whether retirees are more susceptible to negative ads and over-the-top claims in fundraising appeals–just as they are more susceptible to being cheated by fraudsters claiming to be grandkids needing money. Are the senior citizens who are giving more money just more engaged in American politics than ever before, or are they being tricked by scary ads and misleading appeals into giving away their savings?