The 2016 Presidential Race: Why is it So Different?

By Lucy Rosenthal

The most readily observable process of political campaigning in the United States of America are the presidential elections. There have always been issues surrounding the use of private money in campaign finance. We fundamentally worry about the quid pro quo circumstances that arise. After 1976, following the Watergate scandal where Nixon used private and illegal money in an attempt to sabotage Democratic hopefuls, public money has been offered to candidates from the federal government to eliminate slush funds that might be used for illicit purposes. (ROWEN). Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, it has been apparent that public funding isn’t enough if one wants to roll with big dogs (MANDLE). More and more private money is rushing into the presidential race, contributed mostly by big money families and corporations (CONFESSORE). Both sides see benefit from the system: corporate interests use this money to ensure they have someone who owes them in office. Candidates need this money to keep up with everyone else.

Yet something has apparently shifted in the 2016 presidential race so far: two candidates have shaken things up, deviating from the norm. Donald J. Trump on the Republican side is almost fully self-funded. Normally this would mean he is behind; however the Republican with the most private donations, Jeb Bush, is extremely down in the polls, leaving Trump to dominate. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is supported mostly by Wall Street money, and big donations by political backers, which should put her way above the rest in terms of total donations and her place in the polls. Bernie Sanders, however, has only accepted small donations, and is giving Clinton a run for her (literal) money.

Many people assumed Sanders and Trump would be out of the race by now, but it turned out to be the opposite case. Political analysts like Matthew Pulver, Ira Stoll, and even Bill Clinton are beginning to agree that these two are more similar than first thought,  and because of their similar approaches to campaigning they are changing the presidential race. The significance of private money in campaign finance, while still real, is no longer the clear predictor of election success that it once was.

In 2010 the court ruled 5-4 on Citizens United Vs. Federal Election Commission, allowing corporations to have unlimited funding on the basis of free speech (ROWEN). This decision allowed for an influx of funding into elections by private donors. Suddenly, more than ever, being president had a price tag, and in order to be a contender, the $2,500 limit on federal donations was just not enough (OVERBY).

With large Political Action Committees, Super PACs, contributing billions into campaigns since 2010, campaign finance began to have a clear impact on citizen’s views. Ron Fein of US News writes, “73 percent of Americans (75 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats) agree that “there would be less corruption if there were limits on how much could be given to Super PACs.” Skyrocketing super PAC donations make Americans less likely to trust government, and less likely to vote.” Because of distrust, many believe that people are shying away from big money candidates in 2016.

What really is behind Super PACs is what causes the disconnect. After watching the 2012 election cycle run its course, Blair Bowie states, “Our big-money system, fueled by Super PACs, is bad for democracy because it gives wealthy individuals and institutions unfair influence over who wins elections.” Essentially, because corporations can donate so much to a candidate, that candidate must owe them something. This means the candidate no longer represents with clarity, but has others he or she is voting for too.

In the 2016 election, the effects of this analysis from 2012 have changed the views on “big money” candidates.

Jeb Bush has had the most donations so far. Bush has acquired $133 million in total. About 108 million of that money has been raised by Super PACs. This should put Bush in a good place to run advertisements, hire the right people, and all in all do better. Yet when we look at the polls, Bush as of right now holds 4 percent in the national polls. Right to Rise USA has pushed $103 million in, but seems to not get anything out of it.

Much like Bush, other Republicans also have incredible donations from top corporations and families, and yet don’t poll as well nationally. Ted Cruz, for example, has many conservative bigwigs like The Mercer and Wilks families, to back him up and fund his campaign. Yet he still can’t seem to catch up to the front runner.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s big donations have, like Bush, put her on the top of the money game. Although she is polling the best at 48 percent, other candidates are catching up to her. Bernie has caught up in the polls in Iowa and is 5 percent above her in New Hampshire. Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.56.43 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 12.56.59 PM
Finance Totals So far


According to Neil Nakahodo, “To be sure, this year’s souped-up super PACs are imposing. But so is the outsider cachet of Trump and Sanders who are, respectively, mounting self-funded and small-donor campaigns: Both have blistered big money and helped undercut the momentum”. This could be the root behind the lack of supporters for Super PAC-heavy candidates.

Early in the race, Donald Trump, the front-runner on the Republican side, asked supporting Super PACs to back out. This move, according to Jazz Shaw of HotAir, will ultimately end up a winning one, “Part of his appeal to those preferring an outsider candidate is the fact that Trump will largely self-fund his campaign… leaving him free of the influence of the Big Dollar.” Trump’s independence from political affiliation and corporate affiliation has actually made him more appealing.

This goes the same for Bernie Sanders, who is catching up to Clinton on the Democratic side. His open anger at corporate money has also made him more desirable for people who distrust Super Pacs, “Democrat Bernie Sanders rose in the polls for much of the summer partly through bashing the influence of big money, making next year’s primary contests seem more volatile and less predictable.” This prediction early on by Peter H. Stone is turning out to be true.

On the one hand, Sanders and Trump, are rising in the polls day to day without big donors, while candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio can continue to stay in the race even though they’re polling less than 10 percent. This makes a polarized race, all because of campaign techniques.

Sanders and Trump are, “a radical choice in each party, each man an outsider against establishment favorites named Clinton and Bush.” Matthew Pulver concludes. Although they are differ greatly in opinions, Pulver writes clearly about how similar their strategy is. He goes on to describe how Sanders and Trump are both independent from the party they are running in. Neither candidate has a strong affiliation as a democrat or republican. Both are extremes in their own groups, either completely liberal, or completely conservative. Both candidates more or less say what their fellow competitors can’t.

In addition to Sanders and Trump’s independence, Twitter has become a huge changing force in the 2016 election. Sarah Whitten explains in her article, “Social media is a new form of personal marketing, allowing candidates to engage with followers, spark conversations, and make emotional connections with voters.” So the need for intense amounts of money for advertising isn’t on high demand.

The most prolific use of Twitter has come from Donald Trump himself. Nicholas Wells of CNN makes it clear that, “Donald Trump has really figured out a way to drive his message through social media without always having to go on and do interviews in person.” Trump can use twitter as a force for commentary, have it shared internationally, and essentially get free press.

Sanders also uses twitter to his advantage. Sarah Whitten goes on to write later in her article, “The hashtag #FeelTheBern, which was created by his Twitter followers, has been used more than 401,000 times in the last 30 days, averaging more than 13,000 mentions per day” She continues comparing #feelthebern to Clinton’s #hillary2016 and Bush’s #jebcanfixit which both got bad reactions. Whittens feels it is all because Sander’s hashtag was made not by his campaign managers, but by supporters, and even though Hillary has more followers, #feelthebern is tweeted way more than her handle.

The Who & The Why

There are 158 families within the political campaign finance world who donate about half of the funds to the candidates.  

Of these 158 families, 138 donate to Republicans, 20 to Democrats. Most of these families are in the business of large-scale finance (CONFESSORE)


The Wilks Family

The Wilks brothers, Farris and Dan, began their business careers by starting a Wilks Masonry Corporation in 1995. In 2002 they founded Frac Tech, a fracking company that got huge off the fracking boom in the United states.

The Wilks brothers are heavily religious, Farris is a practicing pastor (FORBES) . They are also conservative, right-wing supporters, whose ideologies are summed up in this quote, “The Wilks brothers worry that America’s declining morals will especially hurt the younger generation, so they’re using the riches that the Lord has blessed them with to back specific goals.” (MONTGOMERY).

The Wilks family are the top donators in the 2016 presidential campaign cycle, putting in a total sum of 15 million dollars to Ted Cruz’s campaign. This gives them influence on Cruz, making it hard to separate Cruz’s ideals from their own.

Mercer Family

Robert Mercer is a computer scientist and co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies. He was personally sought out by the founder, James Harris Simons, to run the hedge fund.

The Mercer family members are “Tea Party Republicans” and conservatives. He and his family’s foundation donate large amounts to conservative republican politicians and candidates (WIKIPEDIA).

He is the second top donor in the 2016 presidential race, having given $11.3 million into Ted Cruz. This again makes Cruz’s and the powerful family’s ideologies indistinguishable, and Cruz is put in a position to help Robert Mercer’s wish of cutting taxes, similar to Mercer’s donations to Club For Growth.

Right To Rise USA

Right to Rise is the Super PAC that supports Jeb Bush. After Bush announced that he was running, Republican political consultant Mike Murphy took over the leadership of the PAC.

Right to Rise essentially believes in Jeb Bush and everything he stands for, with plans to “carry Jeb’s optimistic conservative message of renewal and reform to every voter.”

So far Right to Rise has raised $103,167,846 and used around $5,444,338. The top donor is Mike Fernandez, founder of MBF Healthcare Partners.

Their ability to raise money without a cap makes it easy for Bush to stay in the race without worrying about how low he is in the polls. The money also is crucial for advertising and putting on rallys to gain support. The PAC makes it easy for Bush to appeal to voters without having it look like corporations back him up.

Priorities USA

Priorities USA was founded to help Obama’s 2012 election.  the Super Pac now funds Hillary Clinton. Harold M. Ickes is now the enacting head, with Co-chairs Jim Messina and Jennifer Granholm (WIKIPEDIA).

According to their website, Priorities USA  “was founded in 2011 to educate and engage Americans to speak out and stand strong against the outdated views of the far right that threaten our democracy and undermine the middle class.”

This view makes it look as though Priorities USA is built not off corporate interest but the American people, however in this election cycle this Super PAC has raised $15,654,458, and has spent $1,495,801, with mostly big-money donations. The top donors are actually Fair Share Action, a democratic Super Pac also supported by corporations, and Saban Capital Group, a private investment firm. (OPENSECRETS).



Case Study

This isn’t the first time candidates have switched up the campaigning game. In 1988 two candidates showed similarities to Sanders and Trump; Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson are the essentially the old Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (PULVER).

Jackson, like Sanders, was the populist favorite for his time. Sanders even endorsed Jackson when he ran in ‘84 and ‘88. The two were and are perfect storms for young Democrats who want  change in government. (CLIFF).

Pat Robertson uses similar tactics to Trump, making extreme statements to gain thi support. Robertson, like Jackson and Sanders, holds similar beliefs to Trump. He has applauded Trump’s idea to ban Muslims from coming into the US and likes that Trump will say what’s necessary. (TASHMAN)

Jackson and Robertson are parallel in form and function to Sanders and Trump. All four are populist, independent, and radical. All four are on the far side of their party, Trump and Robertson being far right, and Sanders and Jackson being far left.

Similar to Trump’s self-funded campaign, Ross Perot, Texas millionaire, ran for president in 1992. Much like Trump, he prided himself on being completely self-funded. Robert Strong of Huffington Post analyzes, “In 1992, Ross Perot, the Texas businessman, did not run in any primaries, but he was a frequent guest on the TV program hosted by Larry King and converted his television popularity into a third party candidacy. He won nearly 20 percent of the national vote–a remarkable accomplishment.” This shows that self-made men have made progress in presidential elections before. Strong continues by describing the similarity of times. When there is separation of the people and their government, outsiders to politics tend to do much better.

Even in the same election, Republican candidate Ben Carson, like Sanders, has almost only used small donations to pay his way through the presidential race. Early on, he was up with Trump in the polls, showing the this grassroots type of money is extremely influential,  and for a moment he even surpassed Trump in polls. But Carson soon fell off for his sleepy demeanor and lack of radical speaking Sanders and Trump bring to the table (CHOMA).

In all of these cases, men who have shown either similarity in belief, in money-raising, or in use of outlandish speaking have gotten somewhere in the race. These cases tell us that people have tried to break the traditional molds of campaigning, however Sanders and Trump are pretty much the first to put it all together. The way of raising money, their independence, and their radical statements give them all together a greater chance of polling well.


As of now, there is no real way to know how the 2016 campaign will pan out; however it is apparent the game has changed, and Sanders and Trump seem to be the reason behind it. Political outsiders, those who stand out from the rest, have always been around, the question is, in the 2016 presidential election, will Sanders and Trump’s approach to campaigning prove to be successful?




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Amanda Levin says:

    Excellent presentation of information. I am so very curious (and really scared!) about the next presidential election… This gives me a whole other angle to consider.


    1. lucyrosenthal says:

      I feel the same way, but because they are so opposite and Sanders has better polling than Trump nationally I am pretty confident that Sanders would win, unless Cruz makes it through the primaries…. that’s scary


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