Small-Dollar Donors Fueling Sanders, Carson, But Big Money Waiting in the Wings

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  • dale eisman, scott swenson
Common Cause Analysis Underscores Need for Public Financing

Campaign finance reports filed this week illustrate how a small-dollar donor base can help insurgent candidates for President lay the foundation for a competitive race, a new Common Cause analysis suggests.

The figures show that three non-traditional candidates – Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republicans Donald Trump and Ben Carson – collected more than 60 percent of their contributions through the end of September in checks of $200 or less. Each of those candidates is polling at or near the front of the pack in the race for his respective party’s nomination.

“Sanders, with $30 million-plus and Carson, with nearly $20 million, in particular are riding waves of small-dollar donations,” said Jay Riestenberg, the researcher who compiled the figures. Trump, a billionaire who has said his campaign will be largely self-financed, reported that nearly 70 percent of his donations have come in checks of $200 or less; those contributions totaled just $2.8 million however.

“The question now for Sanders and Carson is how long they can remain competitive when their opponents are collecting and stockpiling million-dollar checks in supposedly “independent” super PACs and politically active non-profit groups, both of which can accept unlimited gifts from individuals, groups and corporations,” Riestenberg said.

Super PACs backing various candidates have collected more than $300 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and have spent less than 10 percent of the total. Two such groups supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, reported more than $100 million in donations as of the end of June and two groups aligned with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, reported more than $22 million. The next super PAC reports are not due until early next year.

“The clout of big money is yet to be felt. We know that hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it from hidden donors, will be dumped into races for President, the House and Senate and governorships in the next few months. And we know that the people, groups and companies providing that money will have outsized influence over the course of the campaign and government at every level,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, Common Cause’s senior vice president for strategy and programs.

“The figures we’re seeing now underscore the need for system that matches small dollar gifts from individuals with public funds, so that candidates like Sanders, Carson and others who don’t want to rely on big money interests can remain competitive. Carried to congressional, state and local races, that approach to campaign finance could encourage other people with energy and ideas to offer themselves for public service and restore some balance to a system now dominated by wealthy special interests.”

Note to reporters: The Common Cause analysis is attached to this release. For more information on public financing programs and other solutions to the problem of big money in politics, see the 21st Century Democracy Agenda supported by Common Cause and 12 other advocacy organizations. For interviews with Jay Riestenberg, Karen Hobert Flynn and other Common Cause issue experts, contact:

Scott Swenson (202 736-5713,
or Dale Eisman (202 736-5788,