This year’s presidential election is one that has already been filled with unusual and downright perplexing events. Some of the more memorable moments include the surfacing of Ben Carson’s theory that the pyramids were built to store grain and Hillary Clinton’s misguided attempt to connect with Hispanic voters. But perhaps the most confounding event of the 2016 race so far is Jeb Bush’s failed campaign.
Bush, who called it quits Saturday, seemed to face endless struggles on the campaign trail. He came off as awkward during many of the debates, and conveniently served as the target for many of Donald Trump’s attacks, unable to curb the bullying and get his campaign back on track. Despite having solidly outraised every single Republican candidate by more than $50 million – with his $157.6 million haul – Bush is out.
So how does a candidate who earned a second place title in the arena of political fundraising, only surpassed by Hillary Clinton, drop out of the race so early on? Bush earned only 7.8 percent of the vote in Saturday’s South Carolina Primary, and before his exit announcement Saturday night, Bush was polling at around 1 percent for Tuesday’s upcoming Nevada Republican caucus.
The disconnect, between the amount of money Bush raised and the amount of votes he earned, seems to contradict the general idea that money controls politics in the United States. A PBS article on spending in the 2014 midterm elections reports that “94 percent of (the) biggest spenders in House races won,” and “82 percent of (the) biggest spenders in Senate races won,” concretely demonstrating the power of money in politics in our country.
To be sure, Bush is definitely not the only political candidate ever to fail even with deeply padded pockets. Linda E. MacMahon is a prime example of a candidate whose pocketbook couldn’t save her: She ran two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in Connecticut, outspending her opponent by millions of dollars in the process.
Nonetheless, as sad as it may be, these instances are usually the outliers, with money having a large ability to command elections and propel wealthy candidates to the top.
While Bush himself may have been the problem for his campaign, proving to be a bit of a dud in debates and wildly uncharismatic by most people’s standards, he was able to linger in the race despite low poll numbers largely because of vast financial support from super PACs and wealthy donors.
A New York Times investigative piece from October 2015 looking at who is funding the 2016 race found that the majority of wealthy donors funding the election are conservative, funneling millions to Republican candidates like Bush.
The New York Times piece also highlighted how few individuals are actually funding elections in the U.S., with a very small slice of the electorate able to exert influence through their pocketbooks. New York Times reporters noted, “Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign.”
So essentially, the majority of the 158 families are supporting Republican candidates like Bush, with very clear strings-attached, special-interest agreements in place.
The fact that Republican elites have such sway over the political process highlights two anomalies of this year’s election: Bush’s failure and Bernie Sanders’ success. The Sanders campaign is actively working against the system Bush was benefiting from, a major hallmark of his campaign being his refusal to buy into the world of big-money, special-interest politics.
According to the New York Times fundraising numbers, Sanders has raised $96.3 million, almost $100 million less than Clinton, but earned a solid win in the New Hampshire primary and virtually tied with Clinton in Iowa.
And he’s raising the lion’s share of his money, 71 percent of it, from small individual campaign contributions that are $200 dollars or less. To put this number in perspective, only 17 percent of Clinton’s money has come from small individual campaign contributions, and only 5 percent of Bush’s money came from small individual campaign contributions.
So while Sanders is still perpetuating the notion that money is a critical element in the success of a political campaign, he is redefining where that money is coming from. Voters are being shown that small contributions can not only keep a candidate afloat, but successfully buoy them in the election, combating the ability for big money and its accompanying special interests to dominate the political sphere. Especially when competing against Clinton, who has been tied to these special interests for years, Sanders demonstrates the rise of a new type of money in politics.
Don’t get me wrong, money in politics is still a problem, small contributions or not. According to Politico, “About $7 billion was spent by candidates, parties and outside groups on the 2012 election,” illustrating the scale of the campaign finance problem we have on our hands. But the Sanders campaign is demonstrating to voters how supporting a candidate that actively works against big money in politics can send a strong message about the inability to buy elections.
While it would be foolish and inaccurate to conclusively rule out the influence of big money in politics based on the existence of candidates such as Sanders and Bush, the two politicians definitely add an interesting perspective to the 2016 election, one that cannot be overlooked entirely.