Amazingly enough, long-shot presidential contender Bernie Sanders has raised more money for his campaign than any Republican has in the first half of this year. His team says 250,000 donors have given to the Sanders campaign so far — which goes to show that the Vermont senator has a very broad base of small-donor support.
Yet when the full picture of presidential fundraising is taken into account, this only bolsters Sanders's case that the super wealthy have too much influence on our electoral system. Because when outside groups that can accept huge donations are taken into account, Sanders is getting swamped.
Look at just the campaign fundraising numbers released so far. They place Sanders near the front of the pack, trailing only Hillary Clinton:
Sanders's $15 million haul, while far behind Hillary Clinton's $45 million, easily tops that of most Republican candidates. The only ones who come close to Sanders are Ted Cruz ($14.3 million), Marco Rubio ($12 million), and Jeb Bush ($11.4 million).
Now, there's a huge caveat to Jeb Bush's number there — he didn't actually launch his campaign until mid-June, so his total is just from the 16 days he was in the race. But he is the Republican frontrunner — and Cruz has been running since March, Rubio and Paul since April, and Carson and Huckabee since May. Sanders beat them all.
Yet this is quite revealing of how our campaign finance system currently works, because the rankings dramatically change once allied outside groups that can raise unlimited contributions — Super PACs and "dark money" nonprofits — are added to the candidates' totals:
All of a sudden, Bernie's $15 million haul doesn't look particularly impressive. Outside money lets Bush, Cruz, Rubio, and Rick Perry suddenly surpass Sanders, who has foresworn outside groups. (Technically, none of these outside groups are supposed to coordinate with the campaigns they support, but in practice they tend to be run by the candidates' trusted allies, and to know just what to do.) Outside money also lets Clinton widen her lead over Sanders — and spurs her to raise even more, to keep up with her GOP rivals.
The reason for this, of course, is that donors are limited in how much they can give to any particular campaign — they can donate just $2,700 for each of the primary and the general election. So a broad base of small donor support — like the 250,000 donors who have given to Sanders — is necessary to put up big numbers there.
With Super PACs and dark money, the situation is different. Just a few superrich individuals — or even just one — can pour in unlimited amounts in support of their preferred candidate. Take former Texas Gov. Perry, who raised barely over a million for his campaign and is polling quite badly. His outside groups have raised $16.8 million — $6 million of which is from Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners. As Mother Jones's Patrick Caldwell wrote, Perry is on the board of Warren's company, and Warren is the campaign's finance chairman.
None of this will come as a surprise to Bernie Sanders, who has blasted the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling for years, and has said it "totally corrupted" our political system, saying, "American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections." Now the issue is surely more pressing and personal to him than ever.