Are Trump and Sanders rewriting the rules on money in politics?

Money talks. Emily Costello, CC BY

A persistent question raised in this presidential election cycle is whether assumptions about American politics need to be rewritten, especially those related to money.

The rise of self-funded Donald Trump and small-donor-supported Senator Bernie Sanders has led some to argue that we should worry much less about the harmful effects of money on politics.

In my forthcoming book, Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy, I show why the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision was expected to stop candidates who didn’t have the financial aid of super PACs or mega-contributors. Yet, so far during this campaign cycle, super PACs have done little to back the successful campaigns of Trump or Sanders. In fact, PACs have recently done more to oppose these candidates.

So should we put to rest our concerns that unchecked money will determine electoral outcomes?

Not all rule-breakers

Trump hands a five-dollar bill back to a supporter after signing it in South Carolina. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

With the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971, the federal government began to more closely regulate the amount individuals could contribute to candidates and political parties and created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to enforce campaign finance laws. But, since that time, a series of recent Supreme Court decisions have weakened the rules and rendered the FEC ineffectual.

An individual now can contribute to as many candidates as she chooses, as long as each contribution is under US$2,700. And the Citizen’s United decision says a corporation can now spend as much as it sees fit on independent expenditures to support candidates, as long as the spending is not coordinated with the candidates. As a result, pundits, constitutional scholars and experts believed this would be the election when colossal amounts of corporate money spent on political advertising would determine the next president.

To be sure, apart from Trump or Sanders, the funding of recent candidates – including the rest of the 2016 presidential field – resembles what we would expect from this deregulated campaign finance system.

In 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a majority of the financial support received by both President Obama (67 percent) and Mitt Romney (81 percent) came from relatively large contributors, those contributing more than $200. Four years later, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich have been supported in a similar way. Three-quarters (77 percent) of Hillary Clinton’s contributions have come from large donors. The number is 58 percent for Cruz and 86 percent for Kasich.

But Trump and Sanders are breaking the rules.

Unlike his Republican opponents, the money for Trump’s campaign has come almost entirely from the candidate’s own personal fortune. Not since Ross Perot spent over $50 million of his own money to run unsuccessfully in 1992 has a candidate relied so heavily on his own funding.

Based on the latest FEC filing, Trump has spent $17 million on his own money on his campaign, which accounts for 70 percent of his total cash haul. He has received just 7 percent of his financial support from large donors.

While Trump has bucked the super PAC trends on his own, Sanders – as he has proclaimed many times – has relied on a network of small-dollar contributors, each giving on average less than $30. Based on a comparison of data from CRP, two-thirds of Sanders contributions have come from these small donors, the largest percentage of any of the candidates in the race. Remarkably, Sanders has remained financially viable with this strategy, raising upwards of $140 million thus far.

Sanders campaigns in Wisconsin.

But the amount contributors give is only one way to look at the money race. Where the money is coming from also matters. Los Angeles and the Bay Area in California have famously been the center of political cash in recent elections. Barack Obama raised $62 million from the state and Romney $41 million. In 2016, the Democrats continue to rely on California for the largest share of contributions, making up a quarter of the contributions for both Clinton and Sanders, according to CRP.

On the Republican side, home-state ties have driven contributions. Texans have given Senator Cruz 44 percent of his contributions and Ohioans have given 48 percent of Kasich’s, according to CRP. Donald Trump, who splits his time between New York and Florida, does well in these two states. Trump’s contributions come 15 percent from New York, 14 percent from Texas and 13 percent from Florida.

Can they keep it up?

What’s unclear about the financial strategies of Trump and Sanders is the question of sustainability.

In 2008, though not nearly to the same extent, Barack Obama began his campaign relying on a strategy similar to that of Sanders. Early on, Obama received 63 percent of his funding in $200 increments, but that dipped by nearly 10 points as the election approached. Overall, just 30 percent of contributions to support the Obama campaign in 2008 came from small donors.

Assuming he remains in the race, it remains to be seen whether Sanders can maintain his strategy of small donor contributions and persist with almost no support from super PACs. Recently, a small super PAC representing registered nurses began supporting the Sanders campaign – perhaps a sign of things to come.

The self-funding strategy of Trump also remains in doubt. If Trump wins the nomination, it is not clear that he would – or could – continue to self-fund his campaign throughout the much more expensive general election.

For these reasons, it remains much too early to stop worrying about the influence of money over our elections. There is ample time left for money to shape the presidential race, for big money to determine who is a viable contender for seats in Congress and for super PACs to master the art of expensive political advertising. History tells us that those with money have had a curious ability to find creative new and often unseen ways to determine political outcomes.

Despite some unusual candidates this election cycle, that is unlikely to change in 2016.