Are Small Donors Making A Comeback?

Posted by Jay Riestenberg on October 1, 2015

Sanders and Carson

In the post-Citizens United era, sometimes it seems that the only way to run a viable campaign for public office is to rely on donations from deep-pocketed donors and interest groups that inevitably will want favors in return for their financial support.

But federal campaign finance reports released yesterday show that candidates willing to focus on small-dollar gifts from individual donors can compete very well with those backed by the big money interests – at least in the early stages of a race for President.

Two 2016 presidential candidates, Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Ben Carson, are doing quite well while relying almost exclusively on small-dollar donors. Sanders has overtaken Hillary Clinton in polling in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire while recent polls put Carson in a near-dead heat with business mogul Donald Trump.

Sanders has tapped more than 650,000 small dollar donors and collected 1.3 million checks and cash gifts totaling $42 million from them. His average gift is just $32 and he hasn’t used a Super PAC to round up six- and seven-figure checks from wealthy donors. In the three months ending Sept. 30, he held just seven fundraisers and raised $26 million, compared to 58 fundraisers and $28 million for Clinton.

There’s a similar story in fundraising for Republican neurosurgeon Carson. He reported receiving $20 million in the last three months, mostly from small donors, and his campaign says it has received 600,000 donations since he started running, with an average gift of $51.

Sanders and Carson are proving that small dollar givers can still power at least the initial phases of a national campaign, if candidates just give them a chance. Their success demolishes claims by opponents of campaign finance reform and contribution limits who say that campaigns have gotten so expensive that unknown candidates with important ideas have little choice but to rely on a few major donors, particularly at the start of their campaigns.

They don’t agree on many issues, but Sanders and Carson have both denounced our current campaign finance system. Sanders recently promised that he is “not going to take money from billionaires” and Carson has pledged he is in “no way willing to get in the bed with a special interest group or lick the boots of billionaires.”

Still, as the presidential race heats up and fundraising becomes even more important, Sanders and Carson and their small-dollar donors probably can’t hope to match the money available to more establishment candidates like Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Nor can they compete with the personal wealth that Trump apparently is willing to invest in his quest for the White House.

That’s why we need a revamped financing system, like the one advanced for congressional campaigns in the “Government by the People Act” introduced by Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes. Rather than forcing them to seek out big money and accept the strings attached to it, Sarbanes would let underdog candidates remain competitive by using public funds to supplement their small-dollar donations.

Sarbanes’ idea is one of several important proposals for campaign finance reform that – sadly – are getting little attention on the campaign trail. Clinton, Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have laid out some ideas on the subject and several other candidates in both parties have spoken passionately about the need for change.

But voters need to hear about solutions from all the candidates, particularly considering that recent polling has shown that nearly 80-90% of both Democratic and Republican voters believe we need to change how political campaigns are financed. That’s why Common Cause and other public interest groups are urging all 2016 candidates to endorse the “Fight Big Money, Empowering People” agenda that lays out five solutions to help fix our democracy, including overturning Citizens United, creating a system – like the one in the Sarbanes bill -- that matches small donor contributions with public funds, providing full disclosure of all money spent on campaigns, expanding and protecting access to the ballot, and requiring strong enforcement of the law with penalties for those break it.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Empowering Small Donors

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