Exacerbating the media hype already surrounding the 2016 presidential race, nearly sixteen months before Election Day, was the end of the second fundraising quarter of the year on June 30. Since then, campaign after super PAC after campaign has been divulging its fundraising totals, and one thing about this campaign season is already clear: there will be piles and piles of money spent on the 2016 presidential election.
When Hillary Clinton’s campaign announced her fundraising totals by way of an email to her supporters and a series of tweets, it was with an air of jubilation.
“I’m so excited to announce this, I couldn’t wait one more minute,” read the email penned by Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. “In the first quarter of this campaign, we raised more than $45 million — a new record for this early in the campaign.” For a campaign that’s just a little over two months old, $45 million is a lot of money. Add to that the $15 million dollars reported by Clinton super PACs, and she’s already at $60 million, seven months before the Democratic primary.
Yet Jeb Bush’s numbers dwarf Hillary’s. While the official Jeb! campaign only raised $11.4 million during the second fundraising quarter due to a late official announcement, Jeb’s Right to Rise super PAC raised $103 million in the past six months, a figure that includes 500 gifts of $25,000 or more, bringing the candidate’s massive haul to $114 million.
Although not all campaigns have reported their numbers to the FEC yet (as they are required to by Wednesday, July 15), those that have boast strong numbers as well. GOP candidate Ted Cruz clocks in around $51 million, $37 million of that coming from his super PAC, and fellow Republican Marco Rubio comes in around $32 million. Clinton’s main challenger in the Democratic primary, independent Senator Bernie Sanders, reports raising $15 million from mostly small donors, without any outside aid in the form of PACs or super PACs.
With the median income rate for the average American hovering around $52,000 a year, one might wonder: where is all this money coming from? How is it possible for campaigns to raise so much money when the average American voter isn’t all that wealthy?
The Federal Election Commission has strict rules on allowing individuals to donate to official campaigns. Individuals are limited to giving $2,700 per year to a candidate or campaign committee (counting primaries, runoffs, and general elections as separate campaigns), and $5,000 a calendar year to a PAC. If we could stick to those rules, campaign fundraising might not seem so out of hand.
Super PACs, however, are a game changer, acting as an almost entirely unregulated offshoot of a candidate’s campaign. Anyone (and any corporation) can donate any amount they see fit, and the super PAC is free to spend it to support the candidate of their choosing with targeted media buys and ad campaigns in key swing states. Although campaigns and super PACs are not allowed to communicate once a candidate has announced, there is nothing to prohibit a potential candidate from fundraising for his own super PAC before he announces his candidacy — just as Jeb did for most of this year.
Overwhelmingly, donations to super PACs come in the form of big money—$25,000 and up—given by wealthy individuals or wealthy corporations. As many have noted since Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that created super PACs, this allows for undue corporate and big-donor influence on a democratic elections process. If candidates rely on a small group of donors for most of the money that they use in their campaign, they will likely make promises to that small group of wealthy donors to which they will be beholden while in office. Chances are that won’t play out well in terms of policy for the lower and middle class.
As the dollar numbers keep climbing, TV and radio stations will be raking in the cash while American voters brace for an onslaught of ads produced by both campaigns and super PACs in greater amounts than ever before. Hillary’s $60 million and Jeb’s $114 million are just the beginning.