2016's big surprise: The power of small money in politics

Story highlights

  • Despite fears that big money would dominate, Bernie Sanders has shown the power of online fundraising from small donors, says Julian Zelizer
  • He says reforms should be enacted to encourage small donations

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Much of the 2016 primary season has been ugly and unsettling: Fights breaking out at rallies, campaign rhetoric that makes parents cringe and tabloid stories impacting the mainstream news.

But there have been glimmers of light to come out of this competition that can offer ways to improve future elections. Nowhere is this clearer than with the power of small money.
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    We entered this political season with the assumption that big money would dominate every step of the process. Figures such as Sheldon Adelson loomed large in national conversations about who held power. And large contributions certainly have played a big role. Adelson, the Koch Brothers and other figures have bankrolled many of the candidates in this race.
    Freed from older campaign finance restrictions that have come undone over the decades, super PAC donors had lined up behind the big name candidates. The flow of big money has been powerful and, to some, disturbing.
    Yet the conventional wisdom that big money would invariably dominate has been wrong. Small contributions have been a hugely significant part of this campaign.
    On the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders has energized millions of of voters, many of whom haven't participated in the political process, and they have been donating in sizable numbers. In March, he outraised Hillary Clinton -- by $15 million -- for the third consecutive time.
    "What this campaign is doing is bringing together millions of people contributing an average of just $27 each to take on a billionaire class which is used to buying elections," Sanders said. He has relied on a first-rate digital team that has proven highly effective at crafting compelling email bids for money. They have introduced new techniques, such as texts that reached supporters while the Republicans debated and said things that were sure to elicit concern.
    Sanders' success provides support to campaign finance reformers who in recent months have been arguing that the best and most viable way to improve our campaign finance system is to focus on encouraging small contributions rather than measures, usually unsuccessful, to restrain larger donors.
    As New America's Mark Schmitt has argued, "Instead of trying to limit money, and failing -- let's empower everyone. What if everyone could write a check, not necessarily a fat one, but enough that, together with others, it could make it possible for people to run who don't have access to the very wealthy, or ensure that the concerns and preferences of ordinary voters carry at least some weight in the process."
    In a presidential campaign, a single candidate has the capacity to inspire voters to action. Sanders is not the first person to show that this can be done. In 2004, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean demonstrated how an anti-establishment candidate with a shrewd social media strategy could convince many average Americans to donate online. Then in 2008, Barack Obama did the same. This year, we have just been watching Sen. Sanders perfect this method in ways previously unimaginable.
    Indeed, while in 2016 Hillary Clinton has relied much more heavily on larger donors, her campaign has also done extensive outreach, with considerable success, to smaller donors. Even Donald Trump, who is self-financing much of his campaign and benefiting from free air time, has also had success attracting smaller donations.
    But once this campaign is over, the challenge will remain. Super PACs still have a powerful hold on the congressional election process and many political candidates will still have to rely on these sources of contributions that are often easier to attract than the kind that Sanders has brought to the table.
    As with any major change in policy, the key is to figure out a way to make better practices permanent so that the nation does not have to depend on an individual of unusual skill to make politics better.
    The good news is that there have been an increasing number of proposals for change at the state and local level. In Seattle, for instance, the city now offers voters vouchers that they can use to make contributions. The Seattle system, adopted by an initiative, is paid for through a property tax increase. Voters obtain four 25 dollar vouchers to be used on local candidates who reach a threshold of small private donations and accept spending limits.
    In New York City, the government encourages candidates to go small by offering matching funds to contributions that a candidate can raise of $175 or less. Minnesota provides immediate tax refunds for contributions of $50 or less.
    There are many ideas about how to translate this to the national level. Schmitt pointed to public finance systems that reward politicians who raise a certain level of money from a broad base of supporters or a credit that allows individuals to reduce their taxes by up to $50 for donating. The government could build on Seattle's experiment with national vouchers.
    These reforms will be essential to continue the kind of small money campaigns that have powered Sanders. Both parties might be open to these changes after seeing the political success this can bring in campaigns.
    Given the anti-establishment mood in the electorate, there might also be more political will to move forward with reforms realizing that they can become a winning political issue at this moment.
    Small money has mattered a lot in 2016. The best result would be if legislators in both parties took a serious look at legislation that would institutionalize this approach to campaign finance for future presidential and congressional elections.