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Campaign money in 2016 has become meaningless

FEBRUARY 28: Chris Ferguson stands in line to hear Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders deliver a speech to supporters during a campaign rally on February 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City.
FEBRUARY 28: Chris Ferguson stands in line to hear Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders deliver a speech to supporters during a campaign rally on February 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City.
J Pat Carter/Getty Images

It's hard for many of us to admit, but the 2016 primary season is nearing its end. While neither party has officially nominated its candidate, and neither candidate has reached the critical threshold of convention delegates to assure a nomination, both parties essentially have a presumptive nominee.

There is more certainty on the Republican side that Donald Trump will be nominated than there is on the Democratic side that Hillary Clinton will be, but both of these candidates have math on their side. A very unusual turn of events would have to occur to prevent these two from being the 2016 nominees.

Now that we've reached this stage of the campaign, it's valuable to take stock of campaign finance figures from the primaries and see what they tell us about the race this cycle. Typically, campaign finances reveal quite a bit about an election. For example:

  • A candidate with a large war chest of funds is seen as formidable. Campaign money can be a market-based signal of a candidate's viability. Likewise, a candidate with a small balance is seen as vulnerable or weak, or as having significant liabilities.
  • Second, money begets money. When a candidate is drawing in funds, it helps the candidate attract more funds. In politics, as in all things in life, it's easier to make money when you have money.
  • Third, the makeup of a candidate's donors may indicate the populations with which a candidate is aligned. For example, Bernie Sanders touts that about 65 percent of his campaign has been financed by donors who gave less than $200. For Hillary Clinton, these small donors make up about 19 percent of her total haul. This may indicate that Sanders has a wider base of financial support, in terms of number of donors, and/or that Sanders appeals to those of lesser means. A glance at Clinton's top donors versus Sanders's top donors shows that Clinton is attracting much larger sums, and they're coming from Wall Street types (e.g., hedge funds) and traditional Democratic Party groups (e.g., labor unions), compared with Sanders, whose base of financial support is broader and comes in smaller packages.

In short, analyzing patterns of giving and receiving between donors and candidates can tell us things about the race, the strengths and weaknesses of particular candidates, and where a candidate's allegiances lie.

This year, this type of analysis of campaign finance is somewhat informative about the candidates and the status of the race on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, the picture is much murkier. This is because the presumed Republican nominee hasn't raised much money at all. As Trump likes to brag, 75 percent of his campaign has been self-financed (although the veracity of this claim has been questioned).

Trump touts this as an asset about his candidacy because it supposedly shows that he is not beholden to any particular interests. This may or may not be true, but at the very least it means we have less information about the coalition of people who support Trump, because there is just less campaign finance data on him.

So, point No. 1 here is that campaign financing can tell us things about the candidates and the election, except when it doesn't.

Point No. 2 is that the amount of money that has already been donated during this election cycle dwarfs previous cycles. So far candidates have raised $720 million, and the various Super PACs that support them have raised an additional $462 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By comparison, at the end of the second quarter in 2012 all the candidates combined had spent around $180 million. In the entire 2012 election cycle, Super PACs spent $239 million. So 2016 has already broken all the records for the amount of money being spent on campaigns. This year's election will get measured in billions.

In short, money is often a signal of something meaningful in politics, and this year's election has a lot of money.

My final point is that never before has money held so little meaning in terms of the signals it's providing us about candidates and their campaigns. To see this, let's dig a bit deeper into the money that's been raised so far by the various candidates and their supporter groups in this cycle.

First, recall that each candidate basically has two giant pools of campaign money — one that is made up of donations that come directly to the candidate and another that is money spent by outside groups on behalf of a candidate. These are sometimes referred to as "hard money" and "soft money," respectively, but this is confusing because these terms have changed over the years as the laws have changed.

Second, these pools of money are wildly imbalanced between the parties. There have been 17 Republican candidates this cycle and four Democrats. The following graph shows how much money these candidates and their supporters have spent. ("Supporters" includes outsiders, like Super PACs and 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups that raise and spend money to support or oppose candidates without coordinating with campaigns.)

2016 Primaries Candidates' Funds Graph created by author with data from opensecrets.org

Republicans had more than four times as many candidates as Democrats and relied much more on outside money.

The first takeaway from this is that Republicans have been much more reliant on money from outsiders than Democrats. Democratic and Republican candidate committees have raised similar amounts of money, but there have been many fewer candidates on the Democratic side. The total amount of money outside groups have raised for Republican presidential candidates dwarfs that of Democratic candidates. To gain a better sense of this, let's look at the individual candidates.

The following graph shows how much money individual candidates have raised for their personal campaign committees (the "hard money"). The graph includes large (>$200) and small ($<200) donations, as well as PAC donations (which make up less than 1 percent). Candidate nodes are sized relative to the amount of money they received, and those closer to the center raised more money. The graph provides a sense of the relative amount of donations candidates directly received.

Relative direct donations to 2016 primary candidates Data complied and visualized by author using data from opensecrets.org

With a smaller field of candidates, Democrats relied more on direct ("hard") contributions than Republicans.

You can see here that Donald Trump is not distinguished in any way from his rivals on this graph. The graph also emphasizes the outsize coordination problem Republicans have had — the money donors gave was split between many candidates, making it more difficult for the "market" to know which candidate was rising to the top.

You can also see that Clinton and Sanders have raised about the same amount of money in direct donations. As noted above, Sanders's piggy bank has been filled by smaller donations from more donors compared with Clinton's, while Clinton has drawn big support from traditional Democratic constituent groups.

Next, let's look at how much money the candidates received from outside groups.

Relative outsider donations to 2016 primary candidates Data compiled and visualized by author using data from opensecrets.org

Republicans have relied more on "soft" money from outside groups than Democrats.

Now a few more things become apparent. First, there is a lot more outside spending happening on the Republican side than the Democratic side (largely because Sanders supporters haven't organized in this way). Second, Jeb Bush had a lot of support from outside groups. CRP reports that Right to Rise, the Super PAC that was supporting Bush, still had $17 million, even while his own campaign struggled to find the funds to keep going.

It's not yet clear why donors would give to a Super PAC over a candidate's committee (a question for future research). It suggests the donors thought Jeb! was "the one," and supporting the Super PAC provided more flexible funds to be spent.

One other note about primary spending: It's mostly been positive. There has not been a huge amount of money spent on negative campaigning so far. There has been much more negative campaigning against Trump than any other candidate. Nearly $37 million has been spent on anti-Trump campaigning so far, compared with $5 million on anti-Clinton campaigning and $860,000 on anti-Sanders campaigning. We can expect the expenditures on negative campaigning to accelerate as we enter the general election season.

In the end, looking at the donation patterns from the two likely nominees suggests the money isn't all that interesting. Trump has hardly raised any, and yet he's dominated polls and delegate counts. Clinton's draw has been strong, steady, and somewhat predictable; there are no jaw-dropping revelations about who supports her or what it tells us about the coalition she'll build to get elected.

So money has the potential to reveal important things about elections, and in this election there's more money than ever — but it tells us less than it ever has.

Even the Koch brothers seem to agree that money is not where the action is anymore. The Koch brothers recently decided to reduce their significant campaign contributions because they haven't been effective at ultimately producing the policy outcomes they prefer. They're moving their donations into education and advocacy (i.e., lobbying) rather than campaigns and elections.

You wouldn't know it by looking at the bank account totals, but you just can't buy elections like you used to.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.