Can small donors deliver Bernie Sanders the Democratic nomination?

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(Robin Buckson/The Detroit News via AP) 

On Feb. 19, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced he will once again enter the Democratic primary for president. Sanders, who was runner up to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary, is a self-described democratic socialist and registered Independent who has served as a senator for Vermont since 2007. Previously, Sanders had been a U.S. House member from Vermont and first gained attention as mayor of Burlington, Vermont in the 1980s.

As a member of the Senate, Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats, has led many in the party to the left in recent years, particularly after his 2016 primary campaign which he lost to Hillary Clinton. One of his key issues, universal healthcare or “Medicare for All,” has been cosponsored in the Senate by 16 Democrats, many of whom are also either declared or potential 2020 contenders. His opposition to NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals is becoming an increasingly mainstream position with politicians on both sides.   

Sanders’ 2020 campaign will not be much different from his 2016 run. His agenda includes breaking up big banks, higher taxes on the wealthy, $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization and the Green New Deal, among other progressive changes. The platform seems less radical than it did in 2016, as many of Sanders’ fellow 2020 candidates have adopted similar policies.

In terms of campaign finance, Sanders is one of the more outspoken politicians in his opposition to the Citizens United decision, PACs and “dark money” in politics. He rejected corporate PAC donations in 2016, inspiring most of the 2020 Democratic field to declare the same.

Sanders’ reliance on small donors, those who give less than $200, has always been strong. Between 2013 and 2018, Sanders received nearly 76 percent of his campaign funds from small donors.

In his 2016 primary campaign, contributions under $200 accounted for almost 58 percent of Sanders’ funds, totaling more than $134.6 million. PAC donations totaled just $5,621, or less than one percent, of his campaign contributions. It is likely Sanders will count on that strategy again, but with most of the field following his 2016 lead, it may be harder to dominate small donations.  

In the course of his long career in the House and Senate, dating back to the 1990 cycle, Sanders has received more than $2 million from PACs, the vast majority of which — 68 percent — came from labor sources like trade unions, a long-time ally of Sanders. In 2018, he received $138,766 in PAC contributions, $83,700 of which was labor money. The second-biggest amount of PAC money came from other senators’ leadership PACs. Sanders received leadership PAC contributions from members that are either potential 2020 candidates like, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) or declared 2020 candidates, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

In the 2018 Senate cycle, an election year for Sanders, his campaign raised the most it ever had, receiving more than $11.7 million. The largest source of contributions to his campaign committee in the 2013-2018 period was individuals from the University of California who, in total, gave more than $22,000. Three of his top five donors were unions.

Sanders will start out the race with a good amount of cash on hand — more than $9 million — which is higher than many of the other presidential candidates.

Sanders’ leadership PAC, Progressive Voters of America, raised $376,230 in 2018. Once again, the only PAC money came from several unions, with the majority of donations coming from individuals. The PAC’s biggest recipient was Sanders’ progressive Senate colleague and union favorite Sherrod Brown, who received a $10,000 donation. In total, the PAC donated $63,800 to 27 different House and Senate candidates.

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