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Bernie Sanders Is Changing the Game of Campaign Finance. Here's Why Big-Money Politics Should Be Afraid

United States Activism
by Amanda Machado Feb 23, 2016

AS U.S. VOTERS, THE ABSURD INFLUENCE of money and corporate interests on our political system feels like a necessary evil. As late comedian George Carlin once joked:

“This country was bought and paid for years ago. The shit they shuffle around every four years doesn’t mean a thing.”

But this election year, the Sanders campaign has given us plenty of reasons to believe that corporate America’s time is up. To date, Sanders has raised over $40 million for his campaign. But the real story is how he’s raised it. Instead of using campaign finance tactics that have made Americans cynical about politics in the past, Sanders has changed the campaign finance game entirely. Here’s how:

1. He’s relied heavily on individual donations of $200 or less.

Often, politicians have relied on a small group of wealthy donors to finance their campaigns. When the New York Times this month published data on the all campaign contributions in 2015, they found that through June 30th of 2015, more than 80% of contributions to Jeb Bush were the maximum of $2,700.”

In contrast, the Sanders campaign has succeeded by motivating large numbers of ordinary Americans to contribute. According to The Guardian, the Sanders campaign broke the record this January for money earned from individual contributions. Last September, Sanders had almost double the amount of people contribute to his campaign than Barack Obama had at that point during his 2007 campaign.

Sanders has proved that anyone can have a voice in elections, no matter how small the donation: 77% of Sanders’ fundraising has come from donations of $200 or less, more than any other candidate in the race. The Sanders campaign also told the Washington Post that 99.9 percent of contributors to his campaign have given less than the legal limit of $2,700.

2. He’s denounced Super PACs.

Super PACs became crucial to campaigns after the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowed unlimited donations to political fundraising organizations. Hillary Clinton has relied heavily on Priorities USA Action (which is supported by wealthy donors like Steven Spielberg and others) for funding. In the Ted Cruz campaign, more than 95% of the total contributions to his Super PACs come from donations of $1 million or more.

But Sanders has built his whole campaign around the notion of rejecting Super PACs. Unlike any other candidate in the presidential race, he has shown no support or alliance with any Super PAC during his race.

As Time and others have pointed out, technically, the Sanders campaign has still received large donations from outside organizations (For example, National Nurses United has spent over $610,000 on supporting the Sanders campaign). But these organizations have funding that derives from union member dues, instead of a small group of millionaire donations. Again, Sanders proves that a campaign does not necessarily have to rely on the wealthy to succeed. By leveraging average Americans, he’s still achieving significant results.

3. He hasn’t employed an official finance or fundraising team.

Many politicians use part of their campaign funding to hire an official finance team. Hillary Clinton has around 30 finance staff members helping manage her campaign, and other candidates employ similar numbers.

The Daily Beast reported that the Sanders campaign has absolutely no full-time staff member devoted specifically to finances and fundraising. Instead, the digital and data team staff members help out with finances by managing most fundraising online.

4. He hasn’t depended on donations from private prisons and Wall Street.

A Washington Post analysis found that through December of last year, the Clinton campaign (and the super PACs associated with her campaign) have received $21.4 million in donations from people associated with banks, hedge funds and other financial firms. Vice also reported back in October that the Hillary campaign had received donations of over $133,000 from lobbying firms working for GEO Group and Corrections Corporation America (CCA). That’s around the same amount that these same companies offered Marco Rubio.

GEO and CCA operate criminal and immigrant detention facilities that civil rights activists have often denounced. Recently, the immigrant rights group Dream Action Coalition called out Clinton for accepting campaign funding from these companies, and expressed his support for Bernie Sanders as a result.

By refusing donations from companies like these, the Sanders campaign has sent the message that partnering with non-ethical corporations shouldn’t be tolerated during campaign season. By elevating a movement based on values, he’s shown that he can still keep up.

5. He’s done this all with virtually no help from the media.

In every election, the U.S. media will often give certain candidates preferential treatment. An article in The Nation reported statistics from Andrew Tyndall who tracked evening newscasts at ABC, NBC and CBS. Sanders had received only 1/23rd the coverage of Donald Trump. The statistics also found that from Labor Day to October, Sanders had only received two minutes of coverage, compared to Hillary’s 26 minutes. Alternet also called out the media bias against Bernie, noting that the New York Times has hardly mentioned pivotal achievements of his campaign.

And yet, Sanders has managed to get votes regardless, demonstrating how traditional media outlets no longer impact campaign results as much as they did in the past. In the age of Twitter, blogging, and alternative media, Sanders is showing politicians that they don’t need the support of media giants to succeed.

6. And still, somehow, he’s the only candidate managing to pay his campaign interns.

To even further legitimize his grassroots campaign, the Washington Post reported in December that Sanders is still the only candidate that reserves some funding to pay campaign interns. Sanders pays all of his interns $10.10 an hour, almost $3 over the national minimum wage of $7.25. The only other candidate that even comes close to compensation is Ben Carson, who offers his interns at least a “food and travel stipend.”

To put this in perspective, Obama’s 150 summer interns employed in the White House are unpaid. And nearly 70 U.S. senators offer summer unpaid internships. The salary those senators make over that summer period (August holiday included)? $43,500 each.

Intern pay may seem trivial, but it’s symbolic of the greater values Sanders promotes. Sanders understands the hypocrisy of supporting the middle-class as a politician without financially supporting the middle-class employees of your campaign. And he’s providing a great model for making paid-internships financially feasible.

Through the actions and strategy of his campaign, Sanders is showing that he isn’t just talking about a political revolution. He’s already creating it. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of American politicians get on board.

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