The Money Primary

Money in the 2015 Chicago Aldermanic Elections
Released by: Illinois PIRG Education Fund

The role of money in elections is typically discussed in the context of high profile races such as those for Congress, Governor, or big city Mayors. The influence of money in smaller races, however, is just as big if not bigger. The 2015 Chicago Aldermanic elections produced eighteen runoffs, an unusually large number in a city accustomed to little competition in city races. But while voters have their say on Election Day, a candidate’s performance on Election Day is largely predicted by their fundraising performance in the weeks and months before voters have a chance to weigh in via the ballot box. 

The strong correlation between fundraising success and election results would not be troubling if campaigns were financed by constituents giving relatively small and relatively equal amounts. In such circumstances, candidate fundraising would reflect the strength of their campaign and appeal to the constituents they wish to represent. However, because the Chicago aldermanic campaigns are financed as most all contemporary campaigns are, by an increasingly small number of big donors, Chicagoans should be concerned about the role of money in the aldermanic elections.

 This report analyses the role of money in the February 24th aldermanic elections, as well its ongoing role in the eighteen runoffs set to be decided on April 7th.

 Our analysis finds:

  •  Candidates with a fundraising advantage won a majority or plurality 93 percent of the time in the February municipal election.
  • For the period we have complete reporting (2014), only 11 percent of money contributed came from donors giving less than $150. This percentage will almost certainly go down once we have complete reporting for 2015 because a significant number of large contributions come in close to the municipal and runoff elections.
  •  Candidates with a larger fundraising advantage were more likely to win outright than face a runoff.
  •  Incumbents have a significant fundraising advantage, out-fundraising their closest challengers by almost $7 million by the February election.

  • All but one of the candidates with a fundraising advantage in the municipal election has a fundraising advantage going in to the runoffs. Mostly those advantages have increased.
  • If Chicago were to adopt a small donor matching system, as endorsed by 79 percent of Chicago voters in the February election, candidates relying on small donors would be more competitive, and aldermanic elections would be more competitive in general.

The contest for fundraising dollars is oftentimes referred to as the “money primary,” because it filters out candidates who lack access to a network of large donors and therefore cannot successfully compete for campaign contributions. Similar to other elections, a candidate for Chicago Alderman does not have to win the money primary to win on Election Day, but they do need to be a competitive fundraiser to have a chance.

This is a problem for our democracy when the vast amount of money fueling campaigns comes from a small number of big donors and political action committees. The money primary in its current form is not a reflection of a candidate’s level of support within their district, but of their access to and ability to appeal to big donors. This undermines the principle of one person, one vote, where we all have an equal say over who gets elected.


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