The dozens of men and women who are convinced they are fit to be the next United States president are eagerly crisscrossing the nation and loudly promoting all kinds of policy ideas on how to shape its future. But sometimes it's more enlightening to pay attention to what's in their pockets than to hear what's coming out of their mouths.
Political rhetoric matters, but when employed skillfully, it can shield a candidate from clear commitment on just about anything. Buzzwords and cliches can pique interest from the public without conveying exactly where a candidate's top priorities lie — or whose interests govern their agenda.
But money is different. The money flowing into a candidate's coffers is an unambiguous signal of donor trust. Money can't lie.
Consider the story that money tells about two of the most influential candidates in the 2016 presidential race. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) campaign announced that he had raised $15 million since announcing his candidacy in April, surpassing the expectations of his campaign — and just about everyone else skeptical of the firebrand democratic socialist. Then on Thursday, another bit of surprising campaign fundraising news: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, between his own Republican campaign and his super PAC Right to Rise, has raised a staggering sum of $114 million.
But if you take a closer look at the data, the most noteworthy difference between the two figures lies not in their totals but in their makeup. We can calculate the average contribution to Bernie Sanders' campaign and Jeb Bush's super PAC (Bush's own campaign, which pulled in only a small portion of the total amount raised on his behalf, didn't release their number of donors or donations), and the difference is remarkable. The average donation to Bush's super PAC was about 173 times larger than the average contribution to Sanders' campaign.
Right to Rise reported raising $103 million from 9,900 contributors, with Sanders pulling in his $15 million from 250,000 contributors. This means that the average donor to Bush's super PAC contributed over $10,000, while the average donor to Sanders' campaign gave $60. Those five-digit donations to Bush's super PAC far exceed the maximum contribution that can be made directly to a candidate's campaign ($2,700). That would, in a sense, make comparing Bush's super PAC numbers to Sanders's campaign numbers akin to comparing apples and oranges.
But that is, in fact, exactly the point. Sanders is refusing to rely on a super PAC, because he thinks that their ability to legally raise unlimited sums of money from wealthy individuals and corporations is poisonous for democracy.
If you look at the chart below, you'll see that red bar representing Bush's super PAC is by far the main contributor to the yawning gulf between Sanders' and Bush's war chests.
In response to Bush's fundraising totals, Sanders wrote in an email to supporters on Friday that, "This is not a democracy. This is oligarchy."
One of Sanders' main pledges is that he would consider a commitment to overturning Citizens United — the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to contribute to independent efforts to sway elections and set the foundation for the rise of super PACs — to be a litmus test for a Supreme Court justice nomination.
Shortly after he announced his stance, Hillary Clinton adopted the idea too. But her campaign is coordinating with super PACs, three of which have collectively raked in over $20 million so far. At this point it's difficult to imagine a serious contender for the presidency that would choose to refrain from using them. But it's also a good reason to be more skeptical of any promise they make to take steps to do away with them. After all, they're the ones paving the path to the White House.