Bernie Sanders' $26 million haul proves he's a serious challenger

Sen. Bernie Sanders' ability to raise $26 million in small donations during the past three months underscores his perhaps surprising success in motivating the left.

Paul Beaty/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the University of Chicago in Chicago on Sept. 28, 2015. Sanders raised about $26 million for his presidential campaign in the past three months, his campaign said Wednesday, nearly matching the $28 million take of Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In an era of big money, small donations can still pack a punch.

That appears to be the point that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign wanted to make Wednesday when they announced that, over the past three months, the Vermont senator had raised about $26 million in mostly small contributions made online – only $2 million less than front-runner Hillary Clinton's take in the same period.

The figure draws attention to the growing relevance of Senator Sanders’s insurgent campaign, which “has been discounted by many party leaders as a serious threat to Clinton,” as The Washington Post puts it.

Sanders’s ability to galvanize supporters into making small donations – defined by the Federal Election Commission as contributions of $200 or less – reflects his appeal to the party base, experts say, while the cash suggests he now has the clout to put up a real fight against Mrs. Clinton, particularly in the early primary states.

“In order to get anywhere in the primaries, you need to have enough money to be noticed,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute (CFI) in Washington. “Sanders’s showing in the last quarter was very impressive.”

Sanders’s haul came from 650,000 individual donors in the five months since he launched his bid, according to his campaign. At the end of the second quarter, 77 percent of Sanders’s total contributions came from small donors compared with only 13 percent of Clinton’s, CFI data shows.

The difference is important, Mr. Malbin says, not only because donors who have not yet given the maximum of $2,700 “can well give again,” but also because people who give small amounts are more likely to participate in a campaign.

“Money from super PACs doesn’t add up to people who go to caucuses, who volunteer, who get on the telephone to call people to go out and vote,” he says.

Still, though her camp has not yet released current figures, Clinton had more than 250,000 individual contributors as of the end of June, Bloomberg reports. That, in addition to the money raised by the super political action committee Priorities USA, means the former secretary of State is on track to raise $100 million by the end of the year.

Other factors come into play when measuring a candidate’s strength, as well.

“[O]fficial endorsements – an excellent predictor of eventual victory – continue to roll in Clinton’s direction,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier wrote. More than 200 Democratic governors, senators, and US House members – a 56 percent majority – have endorsed her for president, according to data from FiveThirtyEight.

Sanders, on the other hand, has yet to receive one.

“Mrs. Clinton remains the heavy favorite. If she doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, it will be one of the largest political upsets of the modern era,” Mr. Grier noted.

Malbin, too, warned against putting too much weight on money alone.

“[Clinton] or Sanders will win based on what they will offer substantively to voters,” he says. “This says they both have money."

“The rest is up to them,” he says.

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