It says something about the topsy-turviness of the Republican presidential race that TV star and frontrunner Donald Trump spent more on his “Make America Great Again” hats in the last quarter than down-the-field candidate Bobby Jindal spent on his entire campaign. In the US money and politics are firmly bound in a mutually beneficial relationship. The quarterly fundraising figures are as closely watched as the day-to-day polls for indicators of how the candidates are performing. The money race is the “invisible primary” as the cash totals are used as a proxy for viability and popularity. Large numbers of small donors show broad support which can turn on big donors too. “Success begets success,” said Rick Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine who specialises in election law. “Being able to show you have lots of people supporting you is a good way to get the big fish to give you money too.”
In this election cycle, insurgent candidates such as socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and the anti-establishment figures on the Republican side – Texas senator Ted Cruz and political outsiders such retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – are sucking up lots of cash in small-dollar donations.
Carson collected $20 million (€17.6 million) in the three months to the end of September, leading that quarterly total, ahead of Jeb Bush with $13.4 million and Cruz with $12.2 million.
Billionaire Trump has said he is self-financing his campaign, though he still yielded $3.8 million from 74,000 donors. Carson’s fundraising clout is even more impressive: 60 per cent of his contributions – or almost $12.5 million – came from small donors of less than $200. “He has been able to tap into a deep mine of dissatisfaction among conservatives that has allowed him to amass a large amount of money from small donors,” said Tony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Maine and campaign finance watcher.