Bernie Sanders decisively won the West Virginia primary on Tuesday. His campaign continues to plug along, although he has fewer fewer superdelegates and fewer regular delegates than Hillary Clinton and essentially no chance of gaining the necessary majority.
If the Sanders’ campaign were a conventional business – or campaign – it would likely be liquidating now. But Bernie Sanders, the self-described Democratic Socialist, has constructed his own economy and business model, immune to the typical pressures.
Let me explain: Typically, presidential campaigns are funded via outside political action committees (PACs), which can be dominated by a few extremely rich individuals, or by larger numbers of big-money donors who give directly to campaigns and PACs. These people tend to be relatively savvy investors. When the venture they’re backing seems to lose momentum in the marketplace, they’re unwilling to throw good money after bad. So they pull the plug.
But, from the outset, Sanders has relied on online fundraising, from passionate small donors who give, continuously, in small increments. Not surprisingly for a candidate who has said that Wall Street’s business model is corruption, Sanders doesn’t appeal to billionaires with agendas, or to garden-variety millionaires who want to pony up $2,000 for a chance to take a selfie with the candidate.
So by relying on small donors, Sanders is, in some ways, turning the dynamics on its head. He’s created in his own economic engine that can power the campaign as long as he sees fit. But take a deep dive into the data, and you’ll see– irony alert – in this age of rampant inequality, the Sanders campaign has managed to redistribute well over $150 million from the have-lesses to the have-mores.
Put another way, several of the biggest concentrations of economic power known to mankind were the largest beneficiaries of the Sanders campaign’s spending.
How much did Sanders raise? A lot
Our campaign fundraising system may be infuriating and corrupt, but it is somewhat transparent. If you go to the Federal Elections Commission website — here – you can see precisely how much campaigns spend and raise every quarter. (Here’s the latest summary for the Sanders campaign.)
The BERNIE 2016 machine didn’t get going until the second quarter of 2015. But it has made up for lost time. Through March 31, 2016, Sanders’ campaign had raised $185.8 million, compared with $186.7 million for Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ cash has come from legions of small donors – some two million, as of March. And the campaign boasts that in April, its average donation was $27. (That doesn’t mean the average donor only gives $27. Many people have set up their accounts to give monthly sums to Sanders of $10, $15, or $27.)
Still raking in dough even while losing the race
Precisely because so many of his supporters are emotionally committed and haven’t maxed out their donations, he has been able to continue reaping a big cash harvest—even when he notches poor results.
Clinton did remarkably well in the so-called SEC Primary on March 1, in which many southern states voted, and won each of the five big primaries on Super Tuesday. And yet even as it became clear that Sanders’ path to the nomination was dwindling to the point of impossibility, he continued to rake it in: some $25 million in March alone. That’s down from the February total of $45 million, but it’s still a substantial sum.
So where is the money going?
According to the FEC, as of March 31, 2016, Sanders had spent $168 million (leaving $17 million cash on hand), while Clinton had spent $157.8 million. All told, this year’s field has spent $664.6 million directly from its campaign funds.
In some ways, the Sanders campaign is non-standard in its spending choices: in the first quarter of 2016 the Sanders campaign spent $10,467 on carbon offsets. In the report for the second quarter of 2015, there’s an $822.46 item for Ice Cream.
But in general, the Sanders campaign spends money much the same way that a big corporate-fueled campaign does. When I trolled through the various reports, I found that among the biggest items were:
- air travel ($3.34 million),
- campaign paraphernalia ($6.56 million);
- payroll ($5.89 million)
- postage, printing and mailing ($4.8 million)
- and site rentals ($1.7 million.)
- And of course, digital ad buys ($13.2 million) and media buys ($30.3 million).
If you want to run a national campaign, you have to patronize the big airlines, the big hotel and restaurant chains, and landlords. (It’s not like he only stays at locally-owned B&Bs when traveling, or patronizes a non-profit airline charter service.) And you have to buy ads on the platforms that reach the most potential voters.
So about $43.5 million of the small-dollar donations Sanders has raised has gone directly into the coffers of some of the world’s biggest corporations: Facebook (fb) , Google (goog), and Verizon (vz), cable and broadcast conglomerates like Comcast (cmcsa), radio station and billboard owners.
All presidential campaigns, because of the amount raised and spent, function as a form of stimulus and redistribution. Really rich people give huge donations — money that otherwise would have sat idle on the balance sheets of plutocrats — and campaigns then spend that on advertising, salaries, hotel rooms, and airfare, which then creates lots of service jobs at big corporations.
Something tells me, though, redistributing cash from legions of small donors to the shareholders of large corporations isn’t what Sanders had in mind when he pledged to implement more redistributive policies.