When Bernie Sanders makes a demand for money, he gets it. After winning the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic presidential candidate broadcast a plea. “I’m going to hold a fundraiser right here, right now, across America,” Sanders declared, urging anyone who would listen to visit his website and make a donation—“whether it’s 10 bucks, or 20 bucks, or 50 bucks.” Money poured in at a rapid clip. By the end of the next day, the campaign had collected a staggering $8 million.
As it takes in massive sums, the insurgent presidential campaign has upended conventional wisdom about money in politics. Most presidential candidates consider super PACs, the reviled political-spending operations capable of accepting unlimited amounts of corporate money, a central part of their strategy to win the White House. Even candidates who suggest super PACs should be done away with, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have embraced them in their presidential bids, effectively arguing that you have to play the game if you want to one day change the rules. Sanders has taken a different path. The Vermont senator is the first high-profile Democratic presidential candidate to loudly insist he doesn’t have or want a super PAC in the aftermath of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to a flood of money into politics. Instead, Sanders has relied on average Americans to donate whatever they can, a strategy that has proved remarkably successful.