Proof Small Donors Are Good Doesn’t Mean SuperPACs Aren’t Bad

Posted by Jay Riestenberg on August 26, 2015


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Because it is possible for a candidate to succeed with small contributions, the new talking point being pushed by flacks trying to turn it into Beltway Conventional Wisdom (BCW) is that democracy is safe and the threat of Super PACs and unaccountable secret money is overblown. Ignore the access, influence, and public policy outcomes that favor only those wealthy few and their special interests, that’s either coincidence or “just how Washington works.” Despite the obvious flaw in the logic, and overwhelming evidence that was ignored by the Supreme Court, and dismissed by people pushing this dangerous meme, some very smart people will actually believe this.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can spend unlimited sums of money in U.S. elections in the 2010 Citizens United case, the general thinking was that small donors – contributors who give $200 or less – would soon fade away and the rich and large, multi-national corporations would run the system. And the evidence doesn’t deny that given corporations now have religious rights ( thanks to Hobby Lobby), don’t have to tell you what they put in your food (thanks to GMO labeling), and don’t even have to tell you how they lobby politicians through groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). 

When corporations and large donors have this much power in our political system, one must wonder if small donors even matter anymore. There may be some evidence that small donors actually matter more than ever.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont running in the Democratic primary, has raised $13.6 million for his presidential campaign so far, without any help from a big money outside group. All of Sanders’ campaign cash has come from donors who give under $2,700, and the vast majority of it – 77% - has come from small donors contributing $200 or less according to a new analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute. Even without Super PACs and large donors, Sanders has raised more money than Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ), U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and former Governor Martin O’Malley (D-MD), among other candidates.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson also appears to benefitting from a small-donor insurgence. Unlike many of Carson’s Republican rivals, almost all of the money he has raised has been through his own presidential campaign committee instead of a Super PAC that can accept unlimited contributions. Similar to Sanders, 65% of Carson’s campaign funding has come from small donors giving $200 or less.

Sanders and Carson’s fundraising patterns are very different from their rivals. For instance, 71% of the money from the campaign committee and Super PAC supporting U.S. Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign has come from just 6 donors contributing a combined total of $36 million. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush broke records by raising over $114 million, nearly 90% of which has come from donors giving more than $2,700. Similarly, Democrat Hillary Clinton raised over $60 million between her campaign and Super PAC, 87% of which came from $2,700+ donors. 

Despite not relying on big donors and Super PACs to fund their presidential runs, both Carson and Sanders have seen their poll numbers increase. Recent polls have shown Sanders ahead of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, despite that Clinton has outraised Sanders by about $50 million. The same is true for Ben Carson, who has seen a jump in the polls in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina.

The large crowds Senator Sanders is attracting across the country and rising poll numbers for both Carson and Sanders are proof that a small donor democracy, where everyday people are able to fuel a campaign, instead of big donors, can still work.

We don’t have to wait. In fact, Common Cause is working with voters in in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Santa Fe in New Mexico, statewide in Maine, and helping to lay the ground work in many more places to pass laws urging small donors to participate by providing matching funds. Where we’ve passed those laws in Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina on judicial public financing, the laws have brought new and more diverse faces, ideas, and perspective into public service. Most importantly, it de-emphasizes lobbying and big money by giving campaigns more incentive to talk with constituents.

The success of small donors lifting Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson isn’t proof that Super PACs aren’t a threat – but it is proof that we the people can change the laws and change the system and restore a sense of balance to our democracy by reminding politicians public service is about the public, not the private interests.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Empowering Small Donors, Fighting Big Money

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