The Limits of Bernie Sanders’ Fundraising Juggernaut

Although Sanders financed his campaign through small donors, it is not a path many future candidates can follow.

June 21, 2016
Senator Sanders at Indiana Rally

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

The curtain is fast falling on Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign with the candidate reluctant to leave the stage but devoid of any persuasive reason to stay. Whatever happens with the platform at the Philadelphia convention, Sanders has nudged the Democratic Party to the left and removed the word "socialist" as a career-destroying epithet in American politics.

The Vermont senator's biggest accomplishment, though, has been to preside over the greatest small-donor fund-raising machine in American political history. Beginning as a lonely protest candidate against the seemingly inevitable nomination of Hillary Clinton, Sanders raised $212 million (through April) with none of the Super PAC trappings and big-giver dinners that have become a hallmark of modern politics.

Putting the Bernie Bucks in perspective, his 2.4 million donors (many of them contributing multiple times) are the numerical equivalent of the entire population of New Mexico with the city of St. Louis thrown in for good measure. An innovative Los Angeles Times analysis of Sanders' small-dollar contributors found that the largest subsets of them were retired, unemployed or worked in healthcare, education, technology and the arts.

While Sanders' imprint on the Democratic Party may be lasting (no new trade deals if Clinton is elected in November), the odds suggest that his fund-raising prowess may prove surprisingly ephemeral.

Ever since Howard Dean unleashed the power of online fund-raising with a primitive baseball bat graphic in the summer of 2003, the hope has endured that ordinary citizens armed with credit cards could collectively equal the power of big money in presidential and congressional races.

Small-donor financing has been at the center of campaign reform since the post-Watergate legislation in 1974. A federal matching funds program (but only for presidential primaries) aided underdog candidates for three decades. But this laudable attempt at partial public financing fell apart when the accompanying state-by-state spending limits proved too much of a straitjacket for serious 21st century White House contenders. 

With Dean, technology seemed poised to ride to the rescue. Instead of expensive direct mail, now candidates could prospect for donations over the web with minimal cost.

And, as soon turned out, limited success. There were, of course, a few exceptions with names like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren. But for the most part, little-known candidates (whether running for president or Congress) remained little known on the internet.  

That is why Bernie's Bonanza seemed so bracing, no matter what you think of the Vermont iconoclast's politics. Against the backdrop of Citizens United and the microscopic prospects for campaign reform in Washington, online fund-raising again offered the tantalizing possibility of a free-market alternative to Super PACs.

But as Martin O'Malley (remember him?) discovered, small-donor financing only works for an unusual type of candidate.

Hillary Clinton served as the perfect foil to Sanders with her ties to Wall Street and her comfort with big-donor financing. Despite her denials, the former first lady, senator and secretary of State personified the Establishment. In addition, many Democratic and independent voters (especially younger ones) felt they were being asked to ratify a nomination that had been predetermined without their consent.

With his emphasis on big-government spending (Medicare for all and tuition-free public colleges) and his strident attacks on Wall Street, Sanders aroused the left wing of the Democratic Party that had often felt neglected and ignored. Before Sanders (who wasn't really a Democrat), no major figure in the party had consistently dissented from trade deals.

Another factor powering Sanders was his lack of hypocrisy about money in politics. Unlike Obama in 2008 or Hillary Clinton both then and now, the Vermont socialist wasn't trying to hedge his bets by also appealing to the financial titans of the Democratic Party. With Sanders, it wasn't small donors on Monday, an affiliated Super PAC on Tuesday and a Park Avenue fund-raiser on Wednesday.

Finally, although Sanders received a small fraction of the television coverage of Donald Trump, he was running for the highest office in the land. A 2016 Senate candidate with similar views -- and a similar grumpy grandpa persona -- would probably be relegated to the online equivalent of bake sales.

The one element that suggests that the Bernie Bonanza may end up aiding future Democrats is that the Sanders campaign farmed out most of its online fund-raising to a digital non-profit called ActBlue.  As a result, ActBlue has added more than two million new credit card accounts to its internal database. In the future, these liberal donors could return to the ActBlue website and -- with one click -- send money to a favored congressional or state candidate.

But history suggests that donor lists atrophy fast. Most Sanders supporters probably will not be regularly trolling the ActBlue website looking for congenial candidates for lesser offices. From George McGovern's 1972 fund-raising list to Barack Obama's renamed Organizing for America in 2008, cause-driven campaigns have had scant success in passing the torch to new candidates and causes.

Still, it remains a stirring monument to citizen politics that a backbench senator from a small state could raise more money for a presidential campaign than he could spend effectively. That $212-million figure represents a shimmering beacon pointing to a road beyond Super PACs. The only problem is that the road is steep -- and few  candidates can find their way there. 

(Photo: Bernie Sanders at Indiana Rally)

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of "One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In," a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.