Rahm Emanuel’s Political Machine Is Overwhelmingly White: Here’s Why It Matters—Even Beyond Chicago


The 2016 election cycle has led to heated discussion about the issues of money in politics and racial justice. However, these debates have rarely crossed: the dominance of the affluent and racial justice are treated as separate issues. My latest Demos report suggests that these debates are actually intertwined: the donor class is dominated by whites, which could hamper progress towards to racial justice.

While there has been some research examining the demographic composition of federal donors, there has been virtually none at the municipal level (one study examined the contribution patterns of Asian-Americans). The result is that the issue is rarely discussed, and the possibility that donors could skew policy is almost entirely ignored. To fill the gap, I worked with of University of Massachusetts-Amherst political scientists Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes, and used Catalist, a progressive data vendor, to analyze the demographic composition of Chicago’s donor class. (Catalist’s accuracy has been independently validated and used in peer-reviewed articles and books.) The dataset includes all individuals that donated money (greater than the $150 disclosure limit) between May 16th, 2011 and April 7th, 2015. Catalist was able to match more than 90 percent of donors in the campaign finance data to their database.

The report shows that the donor class is incredibly white. Though the adult population of Chicago is 39 percent white, 82 percent of council and mayoral donors were. Emanuel relied the most on white donors, who made up 94 percent of his donors. Chuy Garcia, Emanuel’s opponent in last year’s Democratic primary, relied less on white donors; 39 percent of his donors were people of color. (27 percent were Latino.) Only 18 percent of council donors were people of color.

Women made up 30 percent of all donors, 27 percent of Emanuel donors and 44 percent of Garcia donors. People making more than $100,000 (15 percent of Chicago’s population) make up 63 percent of donors. Emanuel relied more heavily on the wealthy, and they made up four-fifths of his donors, compared to only 38 percent of Garcia’s donors. Fifty eight percent of council donors made more than $100,000.

This finding, that the donor class is overwhelmingly rich, white and male, meshes well with data on federal donors. An AP study of the 2012 election finds that 90 percent of donations came from white neighborhoods. Political scientist Michael Barber recently found that federal donors were overwhelmingly high income and high wealth. The extensive Demos report, “Stacked Deck,” also explored how racial disparities in the donor class affected policy.


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