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Thousands of people gather to hear Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., during a campaign rally at the Prince William County Fairground, Sept. 14, 2015 in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo: Getty Images)

While Mega-Donors Average $1,950,000... Average Sanders Donation Still Just $27

Billionaires are dominating 2016 spending, but Bernie supporters are proving that small donors can fuel national campaign

Jon Queally

As comedian Larry David reminded Saturday Night Live viewers over the weekend, many people by now know how proud the Bernie Sanders campaign is for having built its entire campaign through a record-breaking 3.5 million individual donations, mostly from small donors averaging gifts of about $27, while refusing the support of super PAC contributions.

Meanwhile, according to a new independent analysis of campaign finance data published Monday by Politico, the 100 biggest spenders during this campaign season—many of them individual billionaires—have donated a combined $195 million to super PACs supporting the other presidential candidates.

The math is easy, but compared to the average donation celebrated by Sanders, the contrast is stark: $27 vs. $1,950,000. 

As the news outlet notes, these 100 top donors have given significantly more than "the $155 million spent by the two million smallest donors combined." This disparity exemplifies exactly what Sanders and other critics of the current campaign finance system mean when they describe how a "rigged economy"—which has created such an unequal distribution of wealth—is also corrupting the U.S. democratic system.

With Sanders as the only candidate to opt out of the super PAC system for 2016, his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and the numerous candidates in the Republican field have reaped the financial rewards of these mega-donors.

As Politico reports:

The analysis found that the leading beneficiaries of checks from the top 100 donors were Jeb Bush's floundering campaign for the GOP nomination (a supportive super PAC received $49 million from donors on the list), Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton (super PACs dedicated to her raised $38 million from top 100 donors) and Ted Cruz's insurgent GOP campaign ($37 million).

In fact, despite his attacks on his party's donor class and his party's establishment, Cruz, the Texas senator who won last week's Iowa caucuses, appears to have locked down the support of four of the top six donors ― the Wilks family of Cisco, Texas (the No. 1 donor on POLITICO's list), New York hedge fund tycoon Bob Mercer (No. 2), Texas energy investor Toby Neugebauer (No. 4) and Illinois manufacturing moguls Dick and Liz Uihlein (No. 6) ― but only one other donor on the list.

Conversely, a super PAC supporting Cruz's GOP rival Marco Rubio raised only $22 million from POLITICO's list, but the Florida senator appears to have the support of 14 of the top 100 donors, suggesting his ultra-rich supporters might be willing to spend even more to support him if he survives his widely panned Saturday night debate performance and emerges as the establishment's best bet to knock off Cruz and national GOP polling leader Donald Trump.

Its analysis of the top 100 donors, Politico explains, includes "contributions to super PACs through the end of 2015 that were disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, combined with analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and an estimate of average small donation size ― $75 ― calculated by the Campaign Finance Institute.  The analysis doesn’t include money donated to nonprofit groups that don’t disclose their donors ― including groups set up to support Rubio, Bush and Clinton ― nor does it include donations to super PACs funneled through shell companies or other nonprofits in a way that avoids FEC disclosure."

Last week, discussing the importance of its many individual donors—a large percentage of whom can give again and again as they haven't reached the limit for individual giving—the Sanders campaign said that the millions of smaller gifts "continue to be the financial backbone" of its operation. In January alone, the campaign said, "nearly $21 million was donated" in the form of "812,012 separate contributions averaging only $26 apiece." Those gifts brought the total number of donations since Sanders launched his presidential bid to more than 3.3 million, a record for any presidential candidate at that point in a campaign. And since his performance in Iowa, the campaign has announced another major spike in new and returning donors.

It is for this reason that many economists and political commentators like the Campaign for American's Future Richard Eskow repeatedly declare that "runaway inequality is the central issue of our time," one with direct implications for nearly all the key issues under consideration in this election. "A government controlled by wealthy individuals and large corporations," writes Eskow on Monday, "will be much more likely to harm the environment and subvert democratic processes."

Meanwhile, here's a look at what Politico found when it assessed the "Top 100":


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