For a campaign that has so successfully zeroed in on Americans’ discomfort with the way we pay for our elections, Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has largely been a public record of his fundraising successes. With every landmark moment in his campaign, from parrying Clinton-aligned super PAC attacks to suing his own party to performing well at the first debate, the Sanders camp eagerly announced the money they raised as a result (for the record: $1.2 million, “more than $1 million” and $1.4 million, respectively).
The braggadocio points to a confidence the Sanders operation has about their system. Two years after McCutcheon v. FEC ended all aggregate limits on donations to parties and candidates, and six years after Citizens United v. FEC deregulated campaign spending by corporations, the fact that Sanders’ support comes mostly from small donations — and without the help of any candidate-aligned super PACs — is remarkable.
Usually, candidates who publicly decide to refuse support from super PACs and focus on small donors are considered martyrs for their cause by voters and the establishments of either party, doomed to fall on the sword of financial independence. Sanders’ popularity puts him in a different stratosphere if only because mainstream television news knows now that he will be able to pay for plenty of advertising.
By the end of December, Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” had raised $73 million from 2.3 million donations given by 1 million individuals. That’s an average of $27 per donation. Compared to most candidates for president, for whom it is common to hold fundraising dinners where tickets cost as much as an individual can give to a single campaign ($2,700 per election cycle), Sanders raises most of his money, 74 percent, from donations smaller than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Hillary Clinton has raised just 17 percent of her campaign’s funds through small donations.
The Small Donor Advantage
Sanders will be outspent by his Democratic and potential Republican rivals. But small donations provide an advantage large donations don’t: the contact information and vested interest of hundreds of thousands of people. As seen in Texas: While every other serious candidate for president opted to pay the $2,500 required to buy ballot access, Sanders’ team rented space in a labor hall (yes, there is such a thing in Texas) and organized an effort to gather the 10,000 signatures necessary to avoid payment. Sanders could have afforded the $2,500, but it’s more valuable for his campaign to establish a network of volunteers.
This sort of reliance on a broad base of small donors, as financial support and as campaign boots on the ground, has the potential to redefine our expectations for presidential campaigns. Sanders built campaign infrastructure in Iowa and New Hampshire that rivaled Clinton’s, and as The Indypendent goes to press just days before the Iowa caucus, it’s a real possibility that he could win both states. Even though he doesn’t necessarily need to: Despite the common wisdom that losing either Iowa or New Hampshire would interrupt the momentum of his campaign, “momentum” is so often used as a euphemism for the faith and support of wealthy fundraisers and members of the party establishment that its relevance in Sanders’ case is dubious. Even without one or both of the first-voting states, if Sanders’ base wants him to keep running, why shouldn’t he?
It’s pointless to predict an election. After all, most reporting on poll numbers ignores the fact that primary voters usually make up their minds in the weeks immediately before their state’s vote, and most eventual voters only start paying attention to election season after the Iowa caucus. But it’s certainly possible that Sanders wins the nomination.
He’s on the ballot in all 50 states and has the support of a growing number of progressive politicians and public figures. The young people fueling his campaign have interacted with it much like they did the early Black Lives Matter movement, or Occupy Wall Street: while online engagement and proselytizing are important, nothing is viewed as more important than in-person, on-the-ground activism, volunteering and, in this case, voting — an attitude that will certainly become more pronounced as more states vote.
Confronting the Party Establishment
But if mapping how an entire electorate will vote is tough, it’s even more difficult to guess how Sanders, who joined the Democratic Party just a few months ago, would be received by the party establishment if he became their leader. His views on health care, education, taxes, financial regulation and the criminal justice system, to name a few, place him squarely at odds with influential figures throughout the party, including prominent and reliable fundraisers for downticket races.
We can only look to the historical example of similarly disruptive candidates. George McGovern, the first senator to publicly oppose the Vietnam War and leader of a truly grassroots, small-dollar campaign, won a bruising primary contest in 1972. He is remembered for self-inflicted wounds that included a disastrous vice-presidential selection he later had to renounce and a chaotic nominating convention that bumped his nationally televised acceptance speech to 3 o’clock in the morning. His fate was sealed, however, when more conservative elements in the party, including hawkish labor leaders at the AFL-CIO, abandoned him over his antiwar stance and joined in caricaturing him as supporting “amnesty, abortion and acid.”
In present-day Great Britain, last year’s upset victory the election of 66-year-old democratic socialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labor Party has produced deep rifts in the party. Corbyn remains popular with the party’s rank and file, but is strongly opposed by most other parliamentary members of his own party, some of whom are threatening a break from Labor altogether.
In fact, of all the attacks levied against him from the Clinton network, one in particular — a September email comparing Sanders to Jeremy Corbyn, after which the Sanders camp raised that aforementioned $1.2 million — seems the closest to what he might face in the future, if his shot at the nomination were to become a real possibility. The email highlighted the most unconventional aspects of Corbyn’s views, from his calling the trial-less killing of Osama bin Laden “a tragedy” to his criticizing NATO’s stance toward Russia, and mentioned that the two populist leftwing insurgent politicians had both stated an interest in and support of the other’s success.
Much like Corbyn, Sanders hasn’t shied away from the narrative of a progressive outsider facing off against the establishment. After the premiere of his first television advertisement, which describes “two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street,” Sanders’ spokesperson Michael Briggs clarified to MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald that the ad hadn’t mentioned Hillary Clinton by name because it wasn’t exclusively about her. “It’s about people in the Democratic establishment who believe you can take Wall Street’s money and then somehow turn around and rein in the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior,” he said.
In a post-Citizens United era in which political advertisements are cheap and widespread, the opinions of the voting public are assumed to be easily pliable and the mainstream news media seems largely uninterested with issues of corruption and conflict of interest, the Sanders camp is placing a bet that rarely pays off in American politics: that absent mega-donors, PACs or the support of a party establishment, the machinery of public opinion can run on conviction alone.