Politics

More donors, smaller donations: How political fundraising has changed in Canada

The number of Canadians who donate to political parties has steadily increased over the past decade, while the amount of money given by each donor has continued to decline, an analysis of Elections Canada data going back to 2004 has shown.

2011 election prompted some progressive donors to spread contributions across more than one party

(CBC News Graphics)

More Canadians are donating money to federal parties than they were in 2004, though the amount of money given by each donor is steadily declining.

An analysis of 15 years of donation data from Elections Canada reveals how Canadians are changing the way they finance their favourite parties and how changes in campaign finance laws and party fundraising strategies have impacted that.

Back in 2004, about 55,000 donors gifted an average of $275 whenever they made a donation. Last year, there were nearly 81,000 individual donors, but each on average only gave $117 to a federal political party or candidate.

That overall trend has also seen spikes in the numbers of donors. Almost 150,000 people gave to political parties in 2015 – the last general election – and more than 103,000 in 2017.

(CBC News Graphics)

This trend started in 2004, when the Liberal government of Jean Chretien passed campaign finance reform legislation that prevented corporations and trade unions from donating to political parties. 

They could still donate to candidates, but only up to a maximum of $5,000.

When Conservative Leader Stephen Harper secured a minority government in 2006, he banned corporate and union donations to candidates. He also lowered the maximum individual donation to $1,000. 

The Conservative Party benefited under Chretien and Harper's changes to a greater degree than any other party, because it inherited the Reform Party's donor list that was made up of individual donors who gave small amounts. 

Parties such as the Liberals, and to a lesser degree the NDP, were used to receiving larger donations from trade unions, corporations and wealthy individuals. 

"It was like Chretien unintentionally put a bullet in the Liberal Party's head," said Alfred Apps, the former Liberal Party president.

From the times those changes came into effect until today, the other federal parties have worked hard to build donor bases that are as broad and large as possible. 

One of the key innovations, said Michael Roy, who ran the NDP's online fundraising efforts in 2014-15, was that federal parties shifted toward raising money online.

"Online donors tend to give less per donation and there tend to be a lot more of them," he said. 

Roy said online donors also tend to give more than once a year. They may make a $5 donation through their phone one month and then a couple of months later make another for $10 or $20.

(CBC News Graphics)

Donating to more than one party

Something else started to happen in 2011: Canadians started to give money to more than one party.

Between federal elections, few political donors give to more than one party at a time. During election years, however, a small percentage hedged their bets by giving to more than one party. 

Normally, that happens on very small scale. For example in 2005 only 0.7 per cent of Liberal donors hedged their bets, but by the 2006 election year that had risen to 2.6 per cent, a fairly small departure from the mean. 

Only 0.2 per cent of  NDP donors in 2005 gave to another party, but by the 2006 election that had risen to 1.2 per cent.

Unique donors were estimated by looking at donation records that had the same first name, last name, and postal code. (CBC News Graphics)

After the 2011 election, in which the Liberals under Michael Ignatieff were reduced to 34 seats from the 77 they held before the election, something changed in the way donors gave. 

"There were a lot of people that just found Michael Ignatieff unappealing, were unable to connect with him and, as a consequence of that, even those who were historically sympathetic to the Liberal party started to wander all over the map," said Apps.

From 2011 until 2015, donors who traditionally gave to the Liberals, NDP and the Greens, perhaps looking for another progressive party to carry their flag on issues that matter to them, began donating to more than one party. 

The NDP went from 0.8 per cent of their donors giving to another party in 2010 to 4.4 per cent of donors giving to another party by the 2015 election. The Liberals went from 1.3 per cent in 2010 to 3.6 per cent by the 2015 election. 

The wandering Green donors

But the biggest divergence came among Green Party donors. By the 2015 election, almost 10 per cent of them were also giving to another party, up from 1.7 per cent in 2010.

The one outlier was the Conservative Party, that pretty much fluctuated between 0.3 and 1.7 per cent regardless of whether an election was being held or not between 2004 and 2018. From 2016 to 2019 that range was even tighter, between 0.3 and 0.7 per cent. 

"To me this is interesting from a polarization effect. It does look like Conservative voters are becoming far more married to the cause," said Tim Abray, a PhD candidate at Queen's University who studies voting trends.  

"While we've seen more diversification in donations across other parties, particularly the Greens and the NDP and to a degree the Liberals, you're not seeing that same trend with the Conservatives."

After Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau won a majority in 2015, that divergence began, in 2017, to return to normal for the Liberals (1.6 per cent) and the NDP (1.8 per cent) but 6.3 per cent of Green donors were still giving to another party that year. 

(CBC News Graphics)

"We know that Green votes tend to be very soft. New Democrats, while there's a fair gap between them and the Greens, also tend to have a switchable vote," said Roy.

Apps said that Green voters tend to be younger, more interested in climate change and more used to donating to crowdsourcing projects online. This, combined with being less fervently partisan than Liberal and Conservative supporters, may explain why so many Green donors also give to other political parties after 2011.

Which parties are those uncommitted donors giving to? At the last election, nearly eight per cent of Green Party donors also gave to the NDP. The generosity wasn't reciprocal: only 1.6 per cent of NDP donors also gave to the Greens.

Liberal donors gave to the Conservatives and NDP, but in small proportions, 1.6 and 1.9 per cent, respectively.

The Conservative fundraising giant

In every year on record, the Conservative Party of Canada has been the top fundraiser, beating out the Liberal runner-up by several million dollars. The closest another party got was in 2016, when the Liberals reported only $416,000 less than the Tories.

The big fundraising spike in 2015 can be explained by a change in contribution limits. The yearly maximum that anyone can give jumped to $1,500 from $1,200 and has risen by $25 each year since.

(CBC News Graphics)

While the Conservatives are the kings of Canadian political fundraising, they aren't the biggest fundraisers everywhere. They tend to pull more money outside urban cores, reflecting their successes in those ridings during elections. 

The maps below show which party raised the most money in every Forward Sortation Area, the first three digits of postal codes. The darker the area, the more they raised compared with the runner-up.

(CBC News Graphics)

Donations and voter intentions

In the Greater Toronto Area, the NDP has, over the last three elections, been taking over the Toronto core as the top fundraiser in each general election.

(CBC News Graphics)

Over the same time period, in downtown Montreal, the Liberals have overtaken the Conservatives in all but a few die-hard neighbourhoods, like Westmount and Côte Saint-Luc, while the NDP made inroads off the island.

 "This confirms that well-known and trusted hypothesis that money follows voter intention," said Abray. 

(CBC News Graphics)

Metro Vancouver saw a near takeover of the Liberal and NDP in the city core and the Greens starting to take over parts of Vancouver Island.

(CBC News Graphics)

The Prairies remain true blue, except for some gains by the Liberals and NDP in major cities.

(CBC News Graphics)

The Atlantic, like the opposite coast, has gone from blue patchwork to a red diaspora, with the Greens and NDP winning parts of New Brunswick.

(CBC News Graphics)

The geography of generosity is steady

When you look at each party's fundraising performance by region, a startling consistency is revealed in where donations come from for each party.

The Liberals get much of their cash east of Manitoba, the Conservatives stand out in Alberta, the NDP has fans in Saskatchewan and urban cores, and the Greens are a southern B.C. phenomenon.

This consistency is still visible when you zoom into metropolitan areas. In the GTA, Liberals and Conservatives do well in the same areas, especially around Brampton, while the NDP and Greens raise plenty in the urban core.

In Montreal, it's clearly the more moneyed central neighbourhoods that give the most to parties, although the Liberals tend to do well in the English-heavy West Island and parts of Laval.

The Greens and NDP have some of their most generous donors in Southern B.C., which is where the NDP held a chunk of seats in the last Parliament (for the Greens, it's where they won their only seat in 2015).

In Alberta and Saskatchewan, one can almost see a inverted image of party fortunes: where the Conservatives are darker, the other parties are dim and vice-versa.

Atlantic Canada isn't a rich source of party funds, with the exception of the Liberals, who do well in Nova Scotia and P.E.I., and, to a smaller degree, the NDP and Greens, which manage along the southern Nova Scotia coast.

Corrections

  • This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated the yearly contribution limit jumped from $1,000 to $1,500 in 2015. In fact, the increase was to $1,500 from $1,200 that year. The limit had been lowered in 2006 to $1,000 and had risen due to inflation adjustments.
    Oct 18, 2019 3:45 PM ET

With files from the CBC's Peter Zimonjic

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