2020 candidates tout small donors. But big money could still find its way in.

Will new self-imposed fundraising rules cut off the influence of big money in politics? Not necessarily. Heading into the 2020 presidential campaign, Democratic candidates are eager to show that they are beholden first and foremost to average voters. And indeed, last fall’s midterm elections saw a surge in small donations. But there are huge pots of money largely beyond the control of candidates. In some races, outside spending – including from Super PACs and so-called “dark money” groups – exceeds the total fundraising of the candidate and plays an influential role.

In 2018, liberal dark-money groups outspent conservative dark money for the first time, according to Issue One, which advocates for bipartisan political reform. Though such groups are barred from coordinating directly with campaigns, in the tight-knit world of politics such lines can be blurred. Cultivating a grass-roots fundraising base, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont has done, can help insulate a candidate from pressure to return fundraising favors, but it’s just one step. 

“Successfully raising a lot of money from small donors means you can be independent,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute. “It doesn’t mean you will be.”


The Center for Responsive Politics, ProPublica

Christa Case Bryant and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Why We Wrote This

Candidates only control part of the money that influences their election; even those most reliant on donations of $200 or less can see such grassroots fundraising eclipsed by big-dollar outside spending.

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