There is now at least one presidential candidate not beholden to billionaires: Bernie Sanders, Independent senator from Vermont and self-described “democratic socialist,” who will oppose Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket.
Sanders is an anomaly in a legislative body dominated by millionaires. The 73-year-old senator has a modest net worth of about $460,000, which ranks 84th among 100 U.S. senators. The average net worth in the Senate is nearly $11 million. Though unknown to many Americans, Sanders has been a politician since 1981: first as mayor of Burlington, Vt., then as a member of the House of Representatives, and now as a second-term senator.
As a legislator from a rural state that ranks 49th out of 50 in population, Sanders’ fundraising has been as unremarkable as his personal wealth. During 25 years as a member of the House and Senate, Sanders raised a total of about $21 million in campaign funding, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—less than $1 million per year. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, by contrast, has raised more than $45 million in less than 3 years as a senator.
As an advocate for the working class, it’s not surprising Sanders gets a lot of money from labor unions—and virtually nothing from the sort of rich donors funding many other top candidates. Here are Sanders’ top 5 donors during his entire time in Congress:
Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union. Total donations since Sanders was first elected to Congress in 1990: $95,000.
United Auto Workers. $75,400.
National Education Association, a teachers’ union. $69,850.
Communications Workers of America. $65,607.
Sanders has also drawn contributions from the agribusiness industry (not surprising for a politician from a rural state), environmental groups, and law firms (which tend to support liberals who back robust consumer-protection laws). Notably absent from his contributor list is any meaningful money from the financial industry, the biggest source of funds in politics.
In terms of individual donors, a glance at Sanders’ contributor list might suggest somebody running for city council or perhaps mayor, rather than U.S. Senator. His biggest individual donors are Paul and Joanne Egerman of Weston, Mass., who donate occasionally to Democrats and liberal causes and have given Sanders $21,000 during his Congressional career.
Sanders has a political-action committee, Progressive Voters of America, which has raised slightly less than $1 million since 2004. The biggest contribution on record came from members of the Sheet Metal Workers Union, who donated $15,000 in 2012. But Sanders has said he won’t form a super PAC, the type of group that can raise unlimited amounts of money to spend on behalf of causes or candidates. “I’m not going to go around the country talking to millionaires,” he told ABC News recently. “They wouldn't give me any money anyhow.”
Sanders does have a bit of a starter fund for his 2016 presidential election. He's got $4.6 million already on hand from Senate fundraising, which he can direct toward a presidential campaign. And running as as a Democrat, rather than an Independent, could draw contributions from the liberal wing of the party, which is looking for a candidate less cozy with Wall Street and corproate interests than Hillary Clinton.
Sanders has sharply criticized the outsized role billionaire donors play in politics these days, which is likely to be a top campaign theme. It takes a lot of money to get your message out, however, and Sanders will surely be vastly outspent by titanic fundraisers such as Hillary Clinton, not to mention Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and even Ted Cruz. The underdog candidate may have a lot to say, but his competitors will have a much bigger megaphone.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman