MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And we have one more number for you. It comes from a startling new analysis of political money in federal campaigns. The Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in politics and government, reports that in the 2010 midterm elections, 26,783 donors gave more than $10,000 each. It's a group the foundation calls the one percent of the one percent.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Sunlight Foundation compared those 26,000-some donors against the national population of 307 million, and did the math.
Lee Drutman is the foundation's data fellow.
LEE DRUTMAN: It's the one percent of the one percent who account for almost a quarter of all individual campaign contributions.
OVERBY: And looking at the absolute top tier, those who gave more than a half-million dollars apiece, he says that top tier includes just 17 Americans.
DRUTMAN: We know that money is not equally given by all Americans. There are very few Americans who can afford to write the kind of big checks that candidates depend on. What surprised us when we did this analysis was just how incredibly concentrated this giving was.
OVERBY: Drutman found that over the past 20 years, the $10,000-plus donors have accounted for an ever bigger share of political contributions. He says not just candidates, but everybody leans harder on the wealthy, as campaign spending escalates.
DRUTMAN: Parties want to be able to tap into donor networks of people who can give 10,000, $20,000 to the party. And both parties and candidates want to be able to tap into donor networks who can give unlimited sums of money to independent expenditure groups.
OVERBY: Groups that can bombard the opposition with attack ads, as American Crossroads does on the right and Patriot Majority has done on the left.
The analysis also shows that the donor elite of both parties tend to live in big cities, especially New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. And they break down into three categories of donors. The biggest category, donors with corporate ties, gave slightly more to Republicans. The much smaller categories, ideological givers and lawyer-lobbyists, tilted Democratic.
While the Obama campaign and others emphasize their success with small givers, Drutman says there's no mistaking the economic class of the group he looked at.
DRUTMAN: These elite donors on average give $29,000 per electoral cycle. That's more than what half of Americans earn in a single year.
OVERBY: Now, this is far from the first analysis of political giving patterns. One scholar on the subject is Jim Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.
JIM GIMPEL: Bear in mind that wealth is concentrated, you know, and that this donation pattern of course reflects the concentration of wealth in this country.
OVERBY: Gimpel cautions against jumping to conclusions about the donors and their motives.
GIMPEL: It's easy to suspect that, you know, they're the ones behind the scenes pulling the strings, or distorting public policy in some way. But, you know, you need to show that, right?
OVERBY: And that's a step the Sunlight Foundation didn't choose to take.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.