Bernie Sanders raises $33 million: Will his money talk?

Bernie Sanders raised more than $33 million in the last fundraising cycle, $4 million shy of Democratic frontrunner Clinton's total. More significantly, with a sturdy base of supporters, Sanders's average donation amounts to $27.

Mary Schwalm/Reuters
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to the crowd before heading inside for a campaign rally in Amherst, Massachusetts January 2, 2016.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has raised more than $33 million from October to the end of the year, putting him nearly on par with Hillary Clinton, who raised $37 million in the same period.

As the final fundraising quarter of 2015 has come to an end, the independent Vermont senator is entering the new year with $28.4 million in the bank to fund his campaigning for the upcoming primary elections.

Most of Sen. Sanders’s contributions in the past year came from small, private donors – 2.5 million of them. This number breaks the record previously held by President Barack Obama for individual donations. More notable is the minimal size of his donations: In the past three months, the average amount given to the Sanders campaign was $26.17.

"This people-powered campaign is revolutionizing American politics," said Jeff Weaver, Sanders's campaign manager, in a statement. "What we are showing is that we can run a strong, national campaign without a super PAC and without depending on millionaires and billionaires for their support. We are making history, and we are proud of it."

However, as noted by The Washington Post, Ms. Clinton has raised an additional $18 million for the Democratic party in the last three months – money that would go toward the general election – and Sanders has not. Overall in 2015, Clinton has amassed a total of $112 million, to Sanders’s $73.

But even with Clinton’s super PACs and billionaire backers, Sanders is likely to prove a formidable opponent in the first primary elections, which will begin in Iowa next month.

As nearly all of his donations (99.9 percent) did not exceed the $2,700 maximum limit for private donors, his supporters will be able to further contribute to his finances if he performs well in the upcoming nomination contests.

"Bernie is the only candidate generating the kind of broad-based enthusiasm and excitement that Democrats must have in order to raise funds for a general election campaign and keep the White House and make gains in Congress," Mr. Weaver said.

According to his aides, the self-described Democratic socialist has already built a stable network of 1 million donors – a feat that Mr. Obama did not reach until Feb. 27 of his election year. The current president was the first candidate in American history to turn down public financing in the general election, forging what may be a new precedent for campaign finance.  

Pundits from both sides of the aisle have long bemoaned the corrupt influence of money in elections – especially big money. The Nation magazine’s Nomi Prins predicted in June of last year that the 2016 election would come down to the two candidates with the biggest war chests: Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, invariably. And regardless of who wins, she warned, the fate of the country would be in the hands of bankers and billionaires.

But that trajectory has gone awry. Even though Mr. Bush has raised, by far, the most money, he is currently trailing behind in the polls at fifth or sixth place. His opponent, frontrunner Donald Trump, has barely raised any.

As this election has proven to be yet another record-breaker for the amount of money cycling through, most candidates, with or without super PACs, have already raised more than enough to run a campaign. In turn, experts say the impact of money will be diluted, even on the primary stage.

“At least a dozen candidates in this year’s unruly field will have the ability to run, and to keep running even after sustaining loss after loss in the primaries. If the race unfolds this way, it could radically affect campaign dynamics,” Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at University of California San Diego, wrote in a blog post. He goes on:

Without a major campaign war chest or the ability to raise from the grassroots, the candidates without momentum cannot sustain a quixotic campaign and the field quickly winnows. But with a few billionaire backers, this cycle’s candidates will be able to keep hoping and fighting even if they stumble with early electorates. The lack of funding won’t push them out, making money less determinative of their fates.  

The candidate best positioned to take advantage of this dynamic right now is Donald Trump, who is capturing a passionate plurality of insurgent Republican primary voters.

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