Influence of Big-Money Donors Declined in 2017 Mayoral Election

Influence of Big-Money Donors Declined in 2017 Mayoral Election


Mayor Bill de Blasio altered his fund-raising strategy last year, placing a greater emphasis on small donors.CreditCreditHilary Swift for The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s emphasis on small donors in last year’s mayoral race helped fuel a resurgence of donations of $175 or less to candidates participating in New York City’s matching funds program, according to a new report by the Campaign Finance Board.

The report says that 73 percent of contributors to the mayoral campaigns participating in the program — primarily the campaigns of Mr. Blasio, who was elected to a second term, and his Republican challenger, Nicole Malliotakis — made donations in that range.

Donations of $175 or less by city residents are eligible to receive a six-to-one match of publicly financed campaign cash, creating an incentive for candidates to reach out to small donors.

Four years earlier, just 48 percent of contributors to participating candidates made donations at that level, while in 2009, 70 percent of donors gave in that range, according to the report. The sharp fluctuation may be because in 2013 there was no incumbent running and, according to the report, candidates in a wide-open race may focus more on soliciting big-money donors.

altered his fund-raising strategy last year to place a greater emphasis on small donors, in part because state and federal investigations into his fund-raising practices had trained an embarrassing spotlight on his relationship with big-money donors who did business with the city. The investigations, which ended without any charges being filed, also made some big donors uneasy about giving money to the mayor.

Under the matching funds program, which is intended to magnify the importance of smaller contributions, if a city resident donates $10 to a campaign that qualifies for matching funds, the candidate gets $70.

Amy M. Loprest, the executive director of the campaign finance board, said that the high percentage of small contributors shows the system is working.

“The campaign finance program continues to provide the incentive to candidates to reach out to voters to give small contributions and it gives the contributors the incentive to give to those candidates,” she said. Citing a study showing that people who gave money to candidates were much more likely to vote, she added, “It’s an incredibly important part of civic engagement that you provide the incentives for individuals to become contributors.”

The board’s report comes as a charter revision commission created by Mr. de Blasio is preparing to send proposals to city voters that would change the campaign finance system.

The commission is proposing to increase the public funds match to eight to one, while changing the donation limits. In citywide races, such as mayor and public advocate, the match would apply to the first $250 donated by city residents. The current $175 threshold for matching funds would continue to apply to donations to City Council and borough president candidates, under the commission’s proposals.

The commission is expected to meet in September to finalize its recommendations. Currently, the city’s campaign finance system is enumerated in laws passed by the City Council. The commission would enshrine the system, along with the new limits, in the City Charter, which functions as a kind of constitution for city government.

The charter commission has also proposed lowering the maximum allowable contributions significantly. Under its proposals, donors to mayoral candidates taking part in the matching funds program could give no more than $2,000 to a candidate; in the last election, the maximum donation was $4,950. It would also set lower maximum donation limits for candidates to other offices.

The report from the Campaign Finance Board, which is required to produce an analysis every four years, calls for similar changes to the matching funds program. It argues that the changes are needed before the 2021 election, when no incumbents will be running for mayor or other citywide posts and most City Council seats will be up for grabs because of term limits. Those conditions will be similar to the 2009 race, when the percentage of smaller contributions dipped and the importance of large donations jumped.

The proposed changes would further bolster the influence of small donors, the report said.

Yet even last year, with its high percentage of small donors, large contributors continued to carry outsize weight in the election, according to the board report.

The board reported that 13,767 people made donations of $175 or less to mayoral candidates participating in the matching program, for a total of $783,699. In contrast, 656 people gave the maximum donation of $4,950, for total contributions of $3.2 million.

The board also found that for the first time ever, political campaigns in the city took in more donations made by credit card than by check, a sign of how online fund-raising is changing the way campaigns reach out to donors.

In total, Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Malliotakis received $5.9 million in matching funds. Several other candidates participated in the program during the primaries, but none of them raised enough money to qualify for matching funds (the program requires candidates to reach certain fund-raising levels in order to receive the funds). Other candidates, such as Bo Dietl, who ran as an independent, did not participate.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Higher Share of Small-Money Donors Gave to Candidates in 2017 Mayoral Election