Primary Season & Class in Madison

by Julian Novack

In every federal election, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) tracks donations to candidates – when an individual gives money to a candidate, it’ll ask their name, where they live, their occupation and employer. Normally this is rather mundane information, but for the 2020 Election it gives us a window into the politics of class in the Madison-area. Looking at what kinds of occupations support the Presidential candidates draws class lines and helps us to stake out what interests are being represented: normally working peoples’ interests are subsumed in the Democratic Party coalition, but with Bernie Sanders in particular there are clear poles of attraction in the 2020 Primary. We can also start to look at who Madison’s politicians are and who they support and start to ask how well they reflect those they represent.

Voting in the United States is largely a class phenomenon: the less money you make, the less likely you are to vote. Many working-class people either expect that elections won’t change much about our lives, or we see what’s on offer and don’t vote as a protest. While there are more workers than managers, technicians or owners of capital, the low turnout among bottom earners means that a third of votes cast were by those making $100,000 or more. Income alone is only one way to look at class; most Americans have a negative net worth (we have debt) and the Top 1% sit on a hoard of wealth.

The more formal education a person has, the more likely they are to have an investment in elections and policy. Non-voters tend to be more “liberal” than voters, though the word liberal here actually refers to working class issues (union organizing rights, public education, universal healthcare, etc.) and not attachment to the Democratic Party. In 1986, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared, “If everybody in this country voted, the Democrats would be in for the next 100 years,” – except that Democrats don’t offer the things most workers want either.

Politics is always complicated, but in the crowded 2020 Democratic Primary you have the establishment candidates (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris), the “reform” candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang) and then Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist calling for a more dramatic change through a “political revolution” to remake politics, the economy, and the energy system. 

In the establishment camp, Biden is the classic “back to normalcy” figure (“Nothing will fundamentally change”), representing the political establishment pre-Trump and rests heavily on his association to Barack Obama; Buttigieg and Klobuchar acknowledge some of the problems of neoliberalism but ultimately just offer a slightly updated version, with  a new sheen on market solutions – both oppose universal public healthcare, for example, but kinda like the idea; Harris attempted to take up Obama’s mantle with multi-racial elites and women. 

Warren and Yang are more assertive on reforms and paint their solutions as rational policy changes; a technical fix. Deepa Kumar and Patrick Barrett write, “Warren’s strategy of change is built on the assumption that the political system is fundamentally sound and simply requires a very competent and morally decent executive with an excellent set of policy proposals and a team of smart policy makers.” Warren and Buttigieg share a base of support from highly educated voters, though they’re split with the conservative wing going for Buttigieg and liberal one for Warren. Sanders appeals most to working people, drawing heavy support from youth, Latinxs, workers making less than $55,000 a year, and workers without college degrees.

There are also important identity representation issues: in our sexist society, many (particularly professional) women are interested in a female president and want that expressed through candidates like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar. Likewise, Andrew Yang is the first Asian American candidate for President, Sanders the first Jewish candidate, and Pete Buttigieg the first openly LGBTQ candidate. Clearly identity matters in the United States. At the same time, most candidates are maintaining the neoliberal consensus and not proposing anything altogether new – there’s no perfect alignment of identity and class, so take it with a grain of salt. At the time of this writing, nearly all of the other Democratic Presidential hopefuls who have dropped out have endorsed Joe Biden (Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bloomberg, John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Deval Patrick). The only former candidate to have endorsed Bernie Sanders is Marianne Williamson, Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual guru. Elizabeth Warren ended her candidacy in early March but has not endorsed either Biden or Sanders.

Profiles of candidate support: Warren and Sanders supporters include the largest shares of liberals

Trends in Madison Area

Though voting may be anonymous (in theory), political donations are not. Pulling the data from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), we can look at who’s donating to which candidates and political action committees (PACs) in Madison by location, employer, and occupation and start to draw conclusions from there. This gives us more precise information than looking at vote counts; no one has to donate, so if you do its affirmative and suggests you really want that candidate to move forward. I pulled the data for Madison and the surrounding towns, and for the large area employers. I’ll review the data and then offer some explanations for what it might mean.

Data for Madison, WI

Data for Dane County cities Middleton, Monona, Verona, Stoughton, Waunakee, Cottage Grove, Fitchburg, Mount Horeb.

True to its reputation, residents of Madison-proper donated twice as much money to presidential candidates as other towns in Dane County combined. Even still, Dane County and Madison have similar trends: 98% of individual donations to candidates went to Democrats in Madison versus 88% in the rest of Dane County. Sanders had the largest number of donations (37% and 35% in Madison and Dane County respectively), Warren second (20% and 17%), and Buttigieg third (12% and 12%). The major difference is that Dane County has a higher proportion of Trump donors than Madison (6% vs 1.5%), but Madison gave more than a third of all the money that went to Trump from Dane County. Madison isn’t all that different from the rest of Dane County: both Madison and the surrounding areas show the same political preferences, but people in Madison donate a shitload more money to politicians.

Donations directly to presidential politicians through January 31st, 2020 were just shy of $1 million; money given to Political Action Committees (PACs) is more than double that at $2 million. PACs can take much more money than candidates themselves, which reveals something that we’d miss if we only look at direct contributions: rich people generally prefer to give a lot of money to action committees and political parties. In the US, the most an individual can give to any candidate is $2400, though the limits are much greater to parties and unlimited to Super PACs. Over $700,000 was given to the Democratic Party: The Democratic Party of Wisconsin and other various state Democratic Parties, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Democratic National Committee (DNC). This is where big money goes: one CEO in Madison donated $10,000 to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, an “Owner” $10,250, and a Programmer $10,000; a President of a venture capitalist firm donated $13,000 to the DNC.

Other titles that gave $1000 or more to Democratic PACs are Administrator, Consultant, Attorney, Physician, Business Owner, Executive, Statistician, Chief Marketing Officer, Marketing Executive, Politician, President, Professor, Programmer, Psychologist, Contractor, Surgeon, Manager, Retiree. These are who you might call the real base of the “Democratic Party establishment”. Democrats also have many “feeder” groups, PACs that support specific types of candidates in the Democratic Party: Emily’s List promotes female Democrats running for office; 314 Action promotes science; House Majority gives out money to “win back congress”, It Starts Today gives money out to Democrats running for Congress,  MoveOn.org, etc. – these took in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Donations to The Republican Party are also significant. Out of $176,000 given, $58,000 went to the Republican Party of Wisconsin, $54,000 to the Republican National Committee, $32,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and $28,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Who donates? “Business Owner” $5000; President $10,000; Founder $3000; CEO $2500; Engineer $2000; Sales $1000; Retiree $2400. Other notables: Chief Financial Officer; Consultant; Debt Collector; Attorney; Sales; Insurance. (Notice any similarities to Democrats?)

Political Support by Occupation

The data shows us that each candidate has a base that is commonly defined by occupation. Bernie Sanders has by far the most donors with over a thousand job titles listed. The most frequent donors to Sanders are Teachers, Nurses & Medical Workers, Students, Hospitality Workers (Bartenders, Waitstaff, Cooks, Baristas), Warehouse workers, Drivers, and Office Clerks. This contrasts with more traditional top supporters for Joe Biden (Attorney, Retiree, Sales, Physician), Warren (Project Manager, Professor, Retiree, Software Engineer) and Buttigieg (Manager, Attorney, Teacher, Professor, Engineer). Every candidate shows some support across class lines (Biden has some Clerks and Blue-collar Workers, for example, but they’re a minority). 

If workers aren’t monoliths, how do some common job titles align politically? 

  • More than half of CEO’s donated to Trump, followed by Buttigieg (14%)
  • Lawyers donate to everyone, with Warren first (19%) and Sanders (15%), followed by Biden (13%) and Trump (12%)
  • Two-thirds of Clerical/White collar workers gave to Sanders and then Warren (14%)
  • Police give exclusively to neoliberal candidates (Buttigieg and Biden); State Troopers to Trump
  • Accountants: Trump and Sanders are the top recipients – Accountants seem to understand, “Tax law is class war”
  • Graduate Workers donated overwhelmingly to Sanders (75%) followed by Warren (14%).
  • Nurse donations were primarily to Sanders (37%), Warren (25%) and then Buttigieg (18%)
  • Teachers went for Sanders (42%), Warren (19%) and Buttigieg (10%).
  • Marianne Williamson’s top supporters were Artist, Feng Shui Master, Marketing Coordinator, Sales and Therapist. (The orbs have spoken.)

Blue collar workers (Mechanics, Tradespeople, Factory workers, Drivers, Cleaners, Agricultural workers, etc.) are typically considered to be the “conservative white working class.” In Dane County, Bernie Sanders collected half of all donations from blue collar workers followed by Trump (13%), Yang (12%) and Warren (10%). For the rest of the centrist candidates, only Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris received over $100 in total donations from blue collar workers. That’s completely different from the standard narrative of the enlightened, educated liberals and conservative manual laborers – at least as far as donations go. Of all donations to Trump, blue collar workers contributed less than 3% (nearly all from the skilled trades), retirees gave close to half, and real estate, business owners and capital managers most of the rest. 

What this shows is that there is a very real class dimension to the voters and their perceptions of the candidates. The broad and lower section of the working class goes overwhelmingly for Sanders in small amounts (median donation is only $15), while the more educated technicians go for Warren and Buttigieg; Biden’s most frequent donors are from the more historic political class of doctors, lawyers, system administrators, top business management and salespeople.Madison has a larger share of Warren supporters than the rest of the US as a whole, which makes sense since she appeals to highly educated liberals and offers a softer “structural change” than Sanders. More than 50% of Madison residents hold bachelor’s degrees, and 24% have masters degrees or higher. Those with postsecondary degrees are more likely to regard institutions in society as legitimate (because they’re trained that way) and to look for adjustments and technical solutions rather than social ones.

This election is a unique opportunity to see how different classes express their interests (workers overwhelmingly for Sanders; technicians for Warren and Buttigieg, elites for Biden; Buttigieg and Trump), it shows the divisions among sections of the working class (white collar vs blue collar, skilled vs unskilled, etc.), and between workers: half of teachers and nurses are for Sanders, the other half are for technocratic candidates like Warren and Buttigieg.

There are some important limits to these numbers. First, most people don’t donate to electoral campaigns. That means we have to be careful about saying this data represents the electorate (people who vote), and more importantly the general population (including the 50% of people, mostly workers, who don’t vote or are ineligible). But the proportions match up fairly well with the Democratic Primaries thus far: Sanders won between 20-50% in the primaries through Super Tuesday (median 26.5%), and in Madison he’s raised 32% of all political dollars.

Second, many people who donate don’t want to give out information, so they report as “not employed”, “none of your business”, “n/a” and other creative middle-finger responses (I didn’t attribute these to any type of occupation). Third, this can’t tell us much about race or gender without some serious extrapolation. So, we should take this data as one useful element but understand that it’s a sample of voters who are skewed along class lines — overrepresented in the educated, administrators, technicians and elites, and underrepresented among most workers.

Local Politicians & Bureaucrats

If candidates express class interests, where do our local politicians align? Its no secret that real estate and tech companies drive much of the city’s policy, but who do our politicians support?

County Supervisor donations

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway donated to every neoliberal identity candidate (Klobuchar, Booker, Castro, Harris, and Warren), but gave most to Pete Buttigieg, the only LGBTQ candidate in the race and a personal contact of hers through the Mayors Innovation Project; Rhodes-Conway likewise campaigned for mayor as an LGBTQ candidate who wanted to address race disparity in Madison. Most city alders didn’t donate to a political candidate, save for Arvina Martin, who gave small amounts to Gillibrand, Harris and Warren, and Sally Rohrer, graduate student in public policy, who donated to Warren. Half of the twenty (20) city alders gave to the Wisconsin Democratic Party; the other half gave no political donations at all. 

Greg Leifer, City of Madison Human Resources Labor Specialist, who sits opposite the City’s unions and is also negotiating for Willy Street Co-op against its workers’ union, donated solely to Joe Biden. That follows the pattern of union busters who support Biden.

Trends at the County are similar: most County Supervisors gave to multiple candidates, primarily neoliberals. The only local politician to have given any money to Bernie Sanders was Heidi Wegleitner.

This confirms most of what we knew about local politicians: the priorities are primarily identitarian neoliberalism, with some minor support for reform. The political preferences of seated politicians hardly represent what we see from the data above where there’s a plurality for Sanders, and large support for other reformers like Warren and Yang. In 2016 when Sanders won Wisconsin, most local politicians were astonished. Why? Because they’re a distinct political class managing local government on behalf of capital and they hardly represent the desires of people they govern.

A party in waiting?

Bernie Sanders did a lot of things for American politics since 2016, but one of the most significant is financing a Presidential campaign without any corporate dollars and maintaining his political platform without compromise. Those two things together have rallied millions of people who, as we can see from the above data , are not the traditional political actors of professionals, managers and elites.

For Madison, Dane County and the State of Wisconsin, we can see that class politics are expressed much more clearly than during a regular election and that these interests are far and away not represented by politicians – not just at the State level with Republicans, but among Democrats locally who are tied to establishment politics and neoliberal capitalism.

This also suggests another possibility: the potential for a party in waiting. Rather than accepting that local politics be dominated by the regular class of politicians we’ve had for decades, we can see that there’s an audience eager for an alternative if/when we can present them credibly: service workers, teachers, nurses, office clerks, university workers, drivers, warehouse pickers and receivers, and so forth. If we center the working class and oppressed as agents of change with a program to fight to better the lives of working people, fight racism, fight for a just ecological transition, we can already create a list of supporters from this election. The state is of course set up to keep the political structure as is, and we can’t expect that we’ll vote our way to socialism, but there is room to contest and organize for a different set of politics.

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