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. A bombastic socialist challenging the quintessential pillar of the political establishment is surely testimony to the power of the people. Money has not bought this election.
This evidence contradicts the theory that nominees are not chosen in Iowa and New Hampshire, but in an “invisible primary” that takes place in the year or so before the first votes are cast. Super PACs and the boardrooms of the wealthy elite are the controlling forces of this supposed conclave.
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. Clinton rides higher in the polls than Bush, but her candidacy was imperiled in New Hampshire. Bush’s money gives him staying power that may revive his candidacy, but that seems a long shot.
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. Democracy is broadening this year.
If you decry the power of big money and favor the candidacies of Sanders or Trump, you should celebrate the weakness of big money. Of course, the political process is complex, and big money can influence politics in many ways. It may shape other races. It may shape the way in which the media interpret and present this campaign. It is also difficult to portray Trump, a billionaire and reality television star — as divorced from big money. Yet Trump’s constituency is decidedly not affluent. His strongest support comes from voters who have not gone to college, precisely 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, powerful protests against the old regime 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, but the defenders 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. They wanted presidential electors or members of Congress to choose the president.
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 professor of political science and director of the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield.