Super PACs Are for Republicans, Campaign Cash Is for Democrats

Bernie Sanders has raised more for his campaign than any Republican, including Jeb Bush—and other lessons from presidential fundraising disclosures.

Dave Kaup / Reuters

Here’s perhaps the most peculiar statistic from the latest round of Federal Election Commission filings: Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president has raised more money than any Republican candidate’s campaign. That’s right—his $15.2 million haul is more than even the $11.4 million Jeb Bush’s organization has pulled in. Only fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton’s breathtaking $47.5 million beats it (and more than quadruples Bush’s take).

As you may have guessed, there’s an asterisk. Pretty much any tally places Jeb Bush ahead of the rest of the entire field with more than $114 million, thanks to the nine-digit total that Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting him, brought in. It’s no secret that Republicans embraced the post-Citizens United world of super PACs faster than Democrats, but the filings released this week are the most important demonstration of that fact and how it’s likely to play out in this election. (The New York Times has a great tally.)

During the 2012 campaign, President Obama reluctantly and tardily embraced a super PAC created to back his campaign. He had been critical of the new landscape of campaign funding, but decided it was essential to compete with Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton seems to be offering a modified version of that approach: She called for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, but she has also been faster to embrace the aid of Priorities USA—the same super PAC that backed Obama—in the 2016 election. Sanders, a longtime campaign-finance reformer, has ruled out super-PAC support.

Priorities has raised a decent sum toward Clinton’s effort—$15.6 million, which is more than what several Republican candidates’ super PACs have. It’s also less than several others. Priorities has struggled to get its fundraising on track, and has dealt with some internal personnel turbulence. Priorities will continue to fundraise, and Clinton is also sure to benefit from major outside expenditures from unions. But she seems to be on track to run a traditional campaign, with most functions centralized in her Brooklyn office.

That forms a sharp contrast with Bush, whose super-PAC fundraising vastly dwarfs his campaign cash (and also easily passes the $100 million mark some speculated he wouldn’t make by July 1). Bush has effectively decided to farm out many of the traditional functions of a campaign to Right to Rise. Most notably, longtime strategist and close confidant Mike Murphy is working for Right to Rise, rather than the Bush campaign.

The benefit of super PACs is that they don’t have to obey the same legal limits on how much donors can give. The disadvantage is that, at least in theory and law, they’re barred from coordinating with the candidates, making them potentially unwieldy allies. In practice, the fact that candidates are capable of farming essential functions out to “their” super PACs, and feel comfortable doing so, shows the farcical nature of the laws.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this practice is Carly Fiorina, who has surrendered a range of tasks, including rebutting negative media and building a ground game, to CARLY for America. (The group was originally “Carly for America,” but was forced to change its name to include a backronym—whatever campaign-finance laws can’t or won’t stop, they still don’t allow super PACs to use a candidate’s name.) As my National Journal colleague Shane Goldmacher reported, that creates some odd situations—like Fiorina herself only learning of an endorsement when CARLY announced it publicly. CARLY has raised $3.4 million, twice what her campaign has brought in.

The other important thing about super PACs is they make the Republican undercard look significantly different than polls and press might have suggested. Besides Bush, the top tier of GOP hopefuls is generally considered to include Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, and if one is feeling trollish and paying attention only to polling, Donald Trump. But who, among the dozen or so other candidates, is a serious contender?

Most handicappers give Ted Cruz little chance in the presidential race. Rick Perry has generally been dismissed as last cycle’s model. It’s true that Perry’s campaign fundraising is dangerously anemic—barely pushing past a million bucks—but his super PAC raised $16.8 million, placing him fifth overall among candidates (though his $17.9 million is far, far behind fourth-place Marco Rubio’s $40.7 million). Cruz is third overall with $52.3 million, with $38 million of that from his super PACs. That gives the Texas senator a power boost.

Ben Carson, on the other hand, raised an eyepopping amount for a first-time candidate—$10.6 million, most of it from small donors. That shows his grassroots appeal. But his burn rate, the amount of money spent, is very high. His super PACs haven’t released numbers, but they’re reportedly a mess, meaning he’s probably not going much of anywhere.

The other headscratcher on the list is Rand Paul. There are no pro-Paul super PAC figures yet, but he’s only raised $6.9 million for his campaign, trailing even Carson. Unlike Carson, however, Paul is an experienced candidate, a U.S. senator, and should benefit from the political network created by his father, Ron Paul. Erick Erickson goes into some detail about the numbers, asking what went wrong. One problem for Paul is that he’s been unable to find a billionaire backer, and his plans to enlist Peter Thiel or another libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley mogul have been unsuccessful.