Campaign Finance 101: How Bernie Sanders Had The Largest Source of Undisclosed Contributions In The 2016 Primary

Campaign Finance 101: How Bernie Sanders Had The Largest Source of Undisclosed Contributions In The 2016 Primary


It feels like every election season, the subject of money in politics is brought up. No matter which side of the spectrum you're on, you likely have some kind of objection to the billions of dollars raised and spent on the campaign trail, often from undisclosed sources. Despite the rhetoric against money in politics, candidates in the 2016 primary election have broken donation records. Democratic candidates have done the best job of tapping into the wallets, trust funds, and piggy-banks of their constituents. The lion’s share has funded the campaigns of the two democratic front-runners: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Now that Bernie’s campaign has all but breathed its death rattle, another post-mortem is in order.  This one will be focused less on memes and more on money.

Hillary’s campaign financing strategy has been run-of-the-mill as establishment candidates go. Sticking to a steady diet of individual contributions and occasionally splurging on PAC funds, 2016 Hillary is reported to have raised $218,218,422* as of June 13th.  Bernie Sanders has managed to rake in $209,491,613*, almost exclusively from individual donors.  In fact, Bernie has managed to raise over twice as much as the Republican runner-up Ted Cruz ($94,850,536*) and over 15 times as much as the self-funded presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump ($13,862,757*).

Mo Money, Mo...Money

Much of Bernie's financial success can be attributed to the online grass-roots movement that sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere, to back him. The most influential online community was Reddit’s /r/SandersForPresident(S4P) subreddit. The S4P sub is an unaffiliated online group where hundreds of thousands of Bernie activists coalesced to support his campaign via donation drives, phonebanking groups, and facebanking campaigns. S4P can be credited with both inspiring a huge upswing in the youth vote and raising millions of dollars for the Sanders campaign. Unlike his Republican counterpart Ted Cruz (whose campaign may have been meme-d out of existence), many Bernie supporters have continued supporting his campaign to the bitter end. Despite the odds and the constant election coverage, Bernie’s campaign never suffered a major extinction event other than never really standing a chance in the first place.

Perhaps Bernie can take solace knowing he succeeded in creating a revolution...in campaign financing. One of Bernie's key platforms is a desire to get shadowy campaign financing out of politics, and if his FEC summary totals and Open Secrets reports are to be believed, he put his money where his mouth is. The vast majority of his campaign contributions came from donations of about $30 or less, and even without major super-PAC support, he managed to stay even with Hillary in fundraising. Bernie stuck to his word and provided nearly complete transparency in regards to campaign finances. His followers, though, seem to have followed a slightly different philosophy.

Into The Money Pit I Go

Being the nerd I am, I took a gander into the campaign financing data provided by the FEC. Using the holy trinity of large text file viewers, structured queries, and too much free time, I loaded the 2016 campaign finance data into a SQL server on my laptop. Drunk on my newfound power, I decided the first order of business should be auditing the financial records to identify any funny business. Using the query below, I compared the FEC extract records to the FEC summary totals; the results were somewhat surprising.

SELECT 
    cand_nm AS 'Candidate',
    SUM(contb_receipt_amt) AS 'Total Disclosed Contributions',
    SUM(CASE WHEN contb_receipt_amt <= 200 AND contb_receipt_amt < 500 THEN contb_receipt_amt ELSE 0 END) AS 'Contributions 200 or Less',
    SUM(CASE WHEN contb_receipt_amt >= 200.01 AND contb_receipt_amt <= 499 THEN contb_receipt_amt ELSE 0 END) AS 'Contributions 200.01 to 499',
    SUM(CASE WHEN contb_receipt_amt >= 500 AND contb_receipt_amt <= 999 THEN contb_receipt_amt ELSE 0 END) AS 'Contributions 500 to 999',
    SUM(CASE WHEN contb_receipt_amt >= 1000 AND contb_receipt_amt <= 1999 THEN contb_receipt_amt ELSE 0 END) AS 'Contributions 1000 to 2000',
    SUM(CASE WHEN contb_receipt_amt >= 2000 THEN contb_receipt_amt ELSE 0 END) AS 'Contributions 2000 or More' 
FROM [SrcElectionDonations].[dbo].[2016AllDonations]
WHERE cand_nm = 'Clinton, Hillary Rodham'
OR cand_nm = 'Sanders, Bernard'
OR cand_nm = 'Cruz, Rafael Edward ''Ted'''
OR cand_nm = 'Clinton, Hillary Rodham'
OR cand_nm = 'Trump, Donald J.'
GROUP BY
    cand_nm
ORDER BY 
    'Total Disclosed Contributions' DESC


The first thing I noticed was that #CrookedHillary and #LyingTed are having issues with donations over $2000. After investigating the records further, it appears the issue wasn't malice as much as data being data. Whenever a donor exceeded the $2700 donation limit, the FEC data contained either a corresponding adjustment record or a memo stating the donation was refunded. These refunds (and all other refunds, for that matter) were handled inconsistently, which skewed the totals. Satisfied democracy wan't being threatened this way, I moved on to the second item.

Every major candidate showed huge discrepancies in donations of $200 or less, with Sanders far and away the biggest culprit. This puzzled me, but eventually I realized the answer to the $27 question: campaign donations of less than $50 can be donated anonymously as per FEC rules. This explains why the larger donation brackets matched so closely while the smaller donations that Sanders likes to tout so much showed wild variations. I was also surprised to find that after combining these undisclosed totals with super-PAC money for both candidates, the total estimated value of "undisclosed" donations was neck and neck, with Hillary at $144,386,841.42 and Bernie at $131,371,912.72. Who would have guessed the champion of transparency was just as bent out of shape (#BentBernie!?) as the rest of the candidates?!

Just Kidding

Okay, okay, I'll admit I'm being bad right now. I know the chief complaint of Sanders supporters is undisclosed special interest money rather than small, anonymous donations.  Also, an accurate picture of campaign financing data can't be drawn via a simple sum function. There needs to be additional filter logic and maybe an ETL process or two applied to the data to report the correct values, and this Questionably Qualified Data Scientist has yet to complete these changes. Despite the obvious flaws in my current reporting techniques, it is clear that despite making campaign finance information available to the public, there are avenues besides super-PACs to obfuscate donations made to presidential candidates. With a bit of coordination, a group could enlist a large number of people to donate small amounts to a single campaign without creating any records. In the war against super-PACs, "we the people" have become the worst super-PAC of all!

Flippancy aside, even the staunchest Sanders hater has to admit what he accomplished is pretty incredible. Nobody expected a Socialist running on a Democratic platform to raise over $200,000,000 in a legitimate attempt at the presidency. Unfortunately for #BernieBros everywhere, their hopes of a socialist revolution in 2016 are coming to an end. I expect the Sanders legacy to live on when every future campaign tries to tap into that sweet, sweet internet money the way he did. I have no doubt we will see more grass-roots candidates appear in future elections, inspiring people to adjust their food budget to donate to their cause.

* FEC extract summary values were calculated by summing the donation totals of the various donation bracket totals provided by the FEC's web tool. These values may differ from other campaign totals.
** The author of this article is self-disclosing the fact that he has donated $0.00 dollars to a presidential campaign this election cycle. Although it is entirely possible he donated anywhere from $0 - $49.99 and just won't tell anybody, we will probably never know.

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