How Do You Build a Political Movement?

A fundraising fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton highlights competing visions over money in politics, and how to strengthen the political left.

Randall Hill / Reuters

Just when it looked like Bernie Sanders might be poised to tone down his criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate signaled he won’t shy away from a fight. The Sanders campaign escalated its condemnation of the Clinton campaign’s fundraising methods on Monday, seizing on a Politico report to accuse Clinton of “looting funds meant for the state parties to skirt fundraising limits on her presidential campaign.”

The charge highlights a broader divide between the rival candidates. Clinton has worked to strengthen the institutional machinery of the Democratic Party. Her efforts have funneled money into national and state party committees in ways that are likely to build up permanent party infrastructure. Sanders, on the other hand, has run a campaign that privileges purity tests above party loyalty, and individuals above institutions. He has elevated the profile of a select pool of progressive Democratic candidates fighting for election to Congress, and cultivated a grassroots network of intensely-devoted small-dollar donors.

The trigger for the Sanders campaign’s most recent criticism was a deep dive from Politico into the inner-workings of the Hillary Victory Fund, a fundraising venture for the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and 32 state Democratic parties. It found that state parties have retained less than 1 percent of $61 million raised by the arrangement. The article also cited allegations from state fundraisers that some of the state parties are effectively “acting as money laundering conduits” for the DNC and the Clinton campaign.

The fundraising fight has reignited a back-and-forth over which candidate has done more to help Democrats. The Sanders campaign suggested that the way the money-raising venture has been run contradicts “Clinton’s pledges to rebuild state parties.” A campaign press release added that Sanders has “raised money for three progressive Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives” and “unlike the Hillary Victory Fund, every dollar went directly to helping the candidates.”

The DNC refuted the possibility of any wrongdoing. “The suggestion there’s anything unusual about our joint victory funds has no basis in the law or reality, as recognized by numerous independent experts that have looked at this,” Luis Miranda, a DNC spokesperson said in a statement. The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, emphasized its work in support of Democrats nationwide. “Helping Democrats win up and down the ballot is a top priority for Hillary Clinton,” Josh Schwerin, a campaign spokesperson, said in a statement, “which is why she’s raised more than $46 million for the DNC and state parties across the country.” He added that “funds raised through the Hillary Victory Fund are now being used to fund and staff organizing programs in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and states across the country.”

Setting spin aside, there are advantages and risks to both strategies. Clinton hopes to strengthen the Democratic Party, and her fundraising strategy stands to bolster party infrastructure. The DNC acts as a gatekeeper for a host of resources that state parties can tap into, ranging from its voter database to research and press operations. There’s a strategic case to be made for the DNC determining how to allocate dollars nationwide given that not every state will be a general election battleground, among other considerations. For Clinton, the approach appears to reflect faith in the ability of the current political system to achieve results, as long as resources are available. But the fundraising has opened up the campaign to charges that it exploited campaign-finance law. To critics, the effort is sure to register as yet another indication of the candidate’s coziness with the political establishment.

The candidates have quite literally opted to spread the wealth differently. Sanders hopes to fundamentally re-make politics, and has pursued a fundraising strategy that appears more likely to upset the status quo.  Sanders has powered his campaign with small-dollar donations and made a decision to strike out on his own as he cultivates a new generation of political leaders. In the process, he has assembled an alternate power base on the left made up of like-minded individuals. His success may even signal potential to re-write the rules of political fundraising. But Sanders’s strategy could put party unity at risk as he chooses to bolster candidates like Lucy Flores, who is running in a contested Democratic primary race in Nevada. The fact that Sanders appears to  have devoted less attention to institution building, at least at this stage in the race, may make it harder to translate election gains into a political movement with staying power.

The incident also raises questions over how Democrats should handle money if they want to position themselves as champions for campaign-finance reform. Sanders has essentially outlined a purity test for the way Democrats raise money, declaring that he won’t rely on Wall Street cash or contributions from wealthy elites as he runs for the White House. The Clinton campaign adheres to a different logic, effectively arguing it makes little sense to unilaterally disarm in the fight for dollars. The campaigns will likely continue to clash. In mid-April, the Sanders campaign raised the possibility that the Hillary Victory Fund may have violated campaign-finance laws, an accusation that at least some campaign finance experts say is unlikely to be true.  At the time, the Clinton campaign characterized the allegations as “irresponsible and poisonous.” For now, Politico’s report has reignited the specter of potential impropriety.

In the long run, Sanders’s purity test may be better for the image of the Democratic Party, and might do more to bolster its credibility as it attempts to position itself as serious about reforming a broken campaign finance system. But there is something to be said for pragmatism, too. As Sanders’s path to the nomination has narrowed substantially, his campaign has suffered a drop-off in donations. If Clinton succeeds in securing the nomination, and evades serious scandal in connection with her fundraising efforts, her strategy for amassing money will be far more likely to serve as a model for future Democratic candidates.