It’s undoubtedly the era of Big Money in politics. But for the time being, donors giving relatively small amounts are shaping the 2016 presidential election more than any billionaire sugar daddy.
Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist and most left-leaning presidential candidate, is surprising the whole field with unexpected fundraising prowess. Sanders’s campaign says it raised $26 million from July through September, which would be more than every single Republican candidate raised during the same period. The only person who pulled in more cash was Sanders’ fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, who took in $28 million. Here’s a tally of the fundraising so far for 10 major candidates:
Those figures are incomplete because the candidates have until Oct. 15 to officially report their fundraising totals. But the campaigns for Sanders, Clinton, Rubio, Carson, Cruz and Paul have released their totals early, and the Bush campaign said it raised more in the third quarter than in the second. Trump, Fiorina and Huckabee haven’t yet released any fundraising information for the third quarter.
The obvious surprise is the relatively large cash haul for candidates once considered fringy, namely Sanders, Carson and Cruz. All three characterize themselves as renegades bent on disrupting politics as usual, a message that clearly resonates with voters who see Washington as a cauldron of corruption.
At this stage in the campaign, fundraising basically determines who can afford to stay in throughout the primaries next spring, and who needs to bail. Weak numbers for Rand Paul and second-tier Republicans such as Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum suggest the field could narrow soon. Same with Democrat Martin O’Malley. Republican Carly Fiorina may be in a grey zone, but a strong performance in the latest Republican debate raised her visibility and probably her fundraising, so she may stick around for a while.
Campaign money vs. super PAC money
Money donated to campaigns is only part of the story, of course. There are also hugely important “super PACs” that can provide many millions of additional dollars for spending on advertisements and other efforts essential to a winning campaign. Successful candidates need to pull in both types of money. Donations made directly to a campaign are capped at $5,400, yet that money is crucial because it funds campaign staff, travel, and all the other administrative costs of a campaign. That makes it important to draw donations from a wide base of individuals, which Sanders, Carson, Cruz, Clinton and Bush have apparently been able to do.
There's no limit on money donated to super PACs, and that seems likely to give Republicans an overall edge. Bush’s super PAC raised $103 million in the first half of the 2015, or 9 times as much as his campaign. Several super PACs supporting Cruz have raised roughly $40 million from a handful of rich donors. Rubio’s super PAC raised a modest $16 million through June, but it could make up lost ground by gaining some of the donors who backed Scott Walker until he exited the race last month.
Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, meanwhile, has underperformed. It pulled in just $15.6 million through June, putting her outside-funding war chest behind the top three Republican candidates. Super PACs don’t have to file their next set of funding reports until the end of January, so that money race could look significantly different by the time we see the latest numbers.
None of that will affect Bernie Sanders, who has rejected the idea of forming a super PAC or raising money in big chunks from rich donors. So he’ll remain an underdog no matter how much money his campaign raises. Which seems to suit him fine.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.