Carson, Sanders, Cruz keep pace in campaign with grass-roots funds
NEW YORK — Thanks to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, this was supposed to be the era of big money in politics. It's proving to be the era of small money, too.
Establishment candidates for the presidency such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, who rely on the traditional dinner-party fundraising circuit to collect stacks of $2,700 checks, are being upstaged in the money race. Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz are turning their popularity with their parties' grass-roots supporters into cash, piled in smaller increments, often over the Internet.
Carson, a retired brain surgeon who has never held public office, led the Republican field in fundraising for the quarter that ended in September. His $21 million included $12 million in contributions of less than $200. Sanders' $26 million, gathered mostly from under-$200 donors, almost equaled Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton's total.
“There are just more small donors in the action because they think this time they're in control,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster in New York who runs a super PAC that supports Cruz. “It's a contest between electability and electricity, and electricity is winning.”
The avalanche of super PAC money unleashed by Citizens United and subsequent court decisions in 2010 remains a critical factor in the race. Bush, who has gathered only $25 million for his campaign since declaring his candidacy in June, spent much of the first half of the year assembling a $102 million super PAC. These vehicles can raise unlimited sums from individuals and corporations as long as they don't coordinate certain types of spending with a campaign.
The limitations of unlimited money were brought into focus in September, when the campaigns of Republicans Rick Perry and Scott Walker collapsed. Both had the backing of super PACs with millions of dollars still in the bank, but a drought of traditional campaign cash left them unable to fund the basic necessities of running for office, such as airline tickets and payroll.