Big money is a loser this year. Jeb Bush and his super PAC have raised more money than all of his competitors – yet he barely climbed out of single digits in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton has received more endorsements and more contributions, yet Bernie Sanders is giving her a run for her money.
This evidence contradicts the theory that nominees arechosen in an “invisible primary,” controlled by super PACs and the boardrooms of the wealthy elite, that takes place in the year or so before the first votes are cast.
Clinton and Bush won the invisible primary for the 2016 election. They raised more money and received more endorsements than their rivals. More of their money came through large donations.
But the strength of candidates receiving most of their money in small contributions shows that big money is not invincible. More than 80 percent of Sanders’ donations were under $200, compared with 20 percent for Clinton. Contributions to Bush’s campaign and his super PAC top $100 million, which dwarfs the $10 million or so that Donald Trump has raised. Moreover, Trump received over 70 percent of his contributions in donations under $200, compared with 6 percent for Bush.
If you decry big money’s power and favor Sanders or Trump, you should celebrate big money’s weakness. It is also difficult to portray Trump as divorced from big money. Yet Trump’sstrongest support comes from voters who have not gone to college, the group whose economic status is most precarious.
If you see Trump or Sanders as flawed candidates, you may wish for an earlier era when party leaders had more power. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey got the Democratic nomination without contesting a single primary. After 1968, protests led to a series of reforms that upended the power of the old bosses. Now we have a system in which primary voters and caucus attendees can defy party leaders. The new system is more democratic, butdefenders of the old system say it produced better nominees such as Kennedy, Ike, Truman and Roosevelt.
The founders of the United States also were skeptical of what they called the “excesses of democracy.” They devised an Electoral College to insulate presidential elections from the masses.
This nation will not likely return to a less-democratic system, but campaign finance reform is always on our agenda. We do not understand enough about the influx of super PACs and the complicated world of campaign finance. Wealthy donors can spend unlimited amounts in our elections. Surely, this money has influence, yet its influence is complex and varied.
This election shows that big money is not insurmountable. No wealthy elite has propelled Trump and Sanders to the top. Candidates, campaigns – and voters – still matter.
Dan Hofrenning is a professor of political science and director of the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College.