“Certain occupations overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2020,” the memo read, with the underlining in the original. “Of those who donated to a presidential campaign: 79% of mechanics donated to Trump and 21% gave to Biden; 60% of small business owners donated to Trump and 40% donated to Biden; and 59% of custodians donated to Trump while 41% gave to Biden.”
Those are interesting data, certainly, albeit it subject to some obvious caveats to even casual observers. But it’s worth considering the assertions in light of a new report from the New York Times showing how the Trump campaign and its allies had used opt-out fundraising tactics to goose contributions.
The way it worked would be familiar to anyone who didn’t carefully consider the options in an online form. How many times have you ended up on some random email list because you neglected to uncheck some box on some website? That’s what the Trump campaign did, too, except instead of a “sign me up for your hourly newsletters,” the checkboxes focused on encouraging people to demonstrate their fervent support for Trump — by making their onetime contribution a recurring one. As of writing, Trump’s old campaign website is still encouraging contributions and still using an opt-out checkbox to make contributions recurring by default.
So it is true that people who identified their occupations as “mechanic” often gave to Trump. There were about 6,200 contributions made to him or an affiliated political action committee (like the Republican Party or a joint fundraising committee) since January 2019 according to Federal Election Commission data, out of about 53,000 total. But there were also about 300 contributions from identified mechanics returned by Trump’s campaign or committees related to it (flagged as negative contributions in the FEC data). That’s a bit under five percent of the total.
We don’t know that these were all people frustrated by the opt-out chicanery; some might inadvertently have exceeded campaign contribution limits through their generosity. It was nonetheless exceptional. Of the contributions made by mechanics to non-Trump-affiliated entities, the percentage of returns was under one-tenth of one percent.
In total, about 90 percent of the contributions returned to self-identified mechanics since January 2020 were made to Trump-affiliated committees. Among those identified as “self-employed,” 91 percent. Among “custodians” and “janitors,” 82 percent. Over and over, money returned to individual donors heavily came from those who had given to Trump.
As we noted when we looked at political contributions from law enforcement in 2020, part of this is a function of a (relatively) new fundraising system for the GOP called WinRed. If you send a donation of $100 to Trump’s campaign via check, it doesn’t need to be reported to the FEC; the amount is too low. If you gave through WinRed, though, it does, because the contribution is not going directly to the campaign. So a lot more Republican small donors flowed into the FEC system this year than in years past. And, as it turns out, some percentage of those donors demanded refunds after discovering just how much they had inadvertently given or after blowing past contribution caps.
(If you’re curious: About 89 percent of returned donations from police, sheriffs and other law enforcement employees had originally gone to Trump or a Trump-allied PAC.)
The scale here is really amazing. In November, the vast majority of reversed contributions reported to the FEC came from the Trump campaign.
(The “Trump MAGA committee” indicator on the above graph refers to “Trump Make America Great Again Committee,” a joint fundraising vehicle for Trump and the Republican Party.)
Since many of those contributions were small-dollar, the percentage of returns as a function of total giving was lower. (Usually, a lot of returned contributions are to donors who gave the maximum allowable amount more than once by accident, while excessive contributions from monthly small donors to Trump would likely come in well below that mark.) But as the Times report made clear, the eventual adjustments amounted in the tens of millions of dollars, largely beginning in June when a second opt-out checkbox was added to forms by the Republican Party.
“In effect,” the Times’s Shane Goldmacher writes, “the money that Mr. Trump eventually had to refund amounted to an interest-free loan from unwitting supporters at the most important juncture of the 2020 race.”
That’s a useful way to think of it. Those mechanics Banks viewed as evidence of the GOP’s working-class credentials loaned Trump and his allies about $78,000 over the course of the campaign before finally getting it back.
That’s 11 cents on every dollar mechanics gave to Trump or his allied committees since January 2019.