US presidential candidates focus on capturing small donors

“Outside” contenders using online campaigns to raise money for their White House bids

Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Bernie Sanders in Los Angeles on Wednesday.LUCY NICHOLSON (REUTERS)

Between July and September, Hillary Clinton held 58 fundraisers while her main rival, Bernie Sanders, just organized seven. Yet the former secretary of state raised just a little more money than her closest contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton raised funds for her campaign at events where wealthy donors gave large amounts, while the independent Vermont senator received more cash through smaller contributions from supporters.

Sanders, Carson and Trump are warning about the million-dollar spending by wealthy donors on certain candidates

The Sanders donations – most of them coming through online campaigns and not at large events like the Clinton fundraisers – reflect how Democratic supporters are divided over who they would like to see in the White House in 2017: a Washington icon like Clinton, or the “outsider” Sanders.

The figures also demonstrate how raising money for campaigns – a key factor in US elections – has changed over the course of a few years.

A similar scene is being played out among the Republicans: Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon with little political experience, is second in the primary race behind Donald Trump. Carson has raised more money in the third quarter than his rivals Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Despite their ideological differences, Sanders and Carson do have something in common that they also share with Trump.

The four candidates’ incomes

Bernie Sanders (Democrat)

Hillary Clinton (Democrat)

Ben Carson (Republican)

Donald Trump (Republican)

He raised $26 million – just $2 million less than Hillary Clinton – during the third quarter of this year through 1.3 million donations from around 650,000 people. Sanders has an electoral war chest of about $41.3 million and has smashed Obama’s fundraising records in 2008 and 2012. According to the election records from August, the average donation was $31. During the second quarter, 76% of Sanders’ campaign contributions were donations of up to $200.

The Clinton campaign has not provided details on how many donors have given to her election bid – during the third quarter she raised $28 million. In the second quarter, Clinton listed 250,000 contributors to her campaign while affirming that less than a quarter of all contributions were $200 or less. Now the Clinton campaign says 90% of its contributions come from small donors. However, that figure may be way off if the $17 million raised by the Super PACs in her favor is taken into account. Until now, Clinton has raised around $93.6 million – more than double what Sanders has raised so far.

The neurosurgeon has raised around $20.2 million in the third quarter through 600,000 donations by 353,000 supporters. The average amount during this time-frame was $51, just slightly above what Sanders reported. In all, the Republican contender has raised $31.5 million.

While Trump has only raised $5.8 million, the billionaire real estate mogul says he doesn’t need campaign contributions or the support of interest groups to finance his election bid. But in the third quarter, around $3.9 million went to the Trump campaign with 44% coming from donations of less than $200, according to the Campaign Finance Institute.

All three are campaigning on platforms in which they proclaim to represent sectors of the population who are fed up with the dominant political classes running Washington. Their populist speeches have focused on the feeling that wealthy people are able to buy politicians.

This belief has grown since the US Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that the government cannot restrict the contributions given to candidates by corporations, unions and others grouped into Super PACs (Political Actions Committees).

Super PACs cannot coordinate with the candidates that they back, but they can run campaigns in their favor.

Notre Dame University law professor Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, who is an expert in election campaign financing, believes that outside candidates have managed to involve a certain sector of the population that traditionally never gets involved in politics.

In a telephone interview, Mayer said that these candidates have attracted voters who are tired of traditional politicians and have a distaste for political dynasties, such as the Clinton and Bush families.

The Sanders, Carson and Trump campaigns have repeatedly warned about the million-dollar spending by wealthy donors on certain candidates.

In 2008, Barack Obama was the first to tap into the smaller donors for his first White House run. Now, Sanders has succeeded in raising more money than the current president did through this strategy.

Sanders, Carson and Trump do not have any Super PACS backing them, which in effect puts them at an economic disadvantage in relation to their rivals. In Trump’s case, however, the situation is different because the billionaire has said he has enough money to finance his own election bid.

A self-proclaimed Socialist, Sanders has rejected big money and instead asked for smaller amounts through his grassroots campaign.

“Just because you raise more money doesn’t mean you are going to win,” explains Mayer.

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Large amounts may not guarantee a victory, but they do help build and maintain a logistical structure – workers, offices, trips and advertising – that is necessary to stay in the race until the end.

The election financing expert believes that the key lies in tapping into hard money, which can broaden resources that guarantee the economic viability of the campaign.

If a candidate can pass this stage, “money will become a less important issue” because the contender can now make winning votes the priority.

At this point, if a candidate bows out of the race, it won’t be because of a financing issue. This is the situation both Sanders and Carson are aiming to reach.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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