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"Dark money" and your vote: How candidates raise it and what it means when they say they won't

Bernie Sanders' massive fundraising haul

Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination are betting big on small dollars.

Elizabeth Warren is forgoing high-dollar fundraisers. Bernie Sanders raised $10 million in week with the help of small contributions. Most 2020 presidential candidates are rejecting money from corporate PACs and lobbyists. The Democratic National Committee is requiring candidates to have at least 65,000 grassroots donors in order to participate in primary debates. And billionaires and self-funders are considered personae non grata.

"Small dollar donors are the central constituency of the Democratic 2020 primary," says Erin Hill, executive director of the online fundraising platform ActBlue. "Strategically, it's important for what we value as a party."

The emphasis on the grassroots speaks to themes of anti-corruption and economic fairness that are at the core of the Democratic primary. And candidates see both political and practical benefits to small-dollar donations: They not only make their campaigns appear more accountable and accessible, but they also serve as a reservoir of financial support to go back to throughout the primary and provide a network of ready-made volunteers.

"Voters have become increasingly fed up with the way Washington works for a handful of political donors and corporate interests that doesn't work for them," says Adam Bozzi, communications director for End Citizens United. "From health care to prescription drug costs to climate change to gun safety, it's all tied into the amount of money in politics. They see that as the root of the problem and the cause of corruption."

Now that campaign finance is front and center in the Democratic primary, here's a guide for how candidates are talking about money in politics--and what it all actually means:

What's the impact of rejecting fundraisers?

Warren's move this week to explicitly reject high-dollar fundraisers introduced a new fault line in the primary process. "That means no fancy receptions or big money fundraisers only with people who can write the big checks. And when I thank the people giving to my campaign, it will not be based on the size of their donation," Warren said in a note to her supporters. "It means that wealthy donors won't be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with me at our events. And it means I won't be doing 'call time,' which is when candidates take hours to call wealthy donors to ask for their support."

The message she wants to send is that she won't be selling access to her candidacy.

But it's not that simple. For starters, Warren isn't declining the bigger checks, she's just rejecting the traditional vehicle for collecting them. Individuals can contribute up to $5,600 in an election cycle--$2,800 in the primary and $2,800 in the general election.

And while eschewing fundraisers may be a sound political message in the primary, it could have the potential to backfire in a general election, which requires more money and involves joint fundraising committees. For now, Warren is making the calculation that this could help inspire a grassroots network and lead to more donations. And it could give her cover if her quarterly fundraising total lags behind the other candidates.

What is a PAC? What is a Super PAC?

A PAC, or a political action committee, is an organization that raises and spends money on elections. There are limits to the amounts of money it can take in and spend. PACs can give up to $5,000 to a candidate per election. So, in a given normal campaign cycle, a PAC can spend up to $10,000, including a primary and a general election. Additionally, a PAC can give up to $15,000 per year to a party committee and $5,000 per year to another PAC. And individual donors and party committees can give up to $5,000 annually to a PAC. A PAC reports to the Federal Election Committee, and discloses its donors.

While PACs have been involved in elections for a long time, the super PAC is a relatively recent phenomenon. These groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on political causes, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010. They can take unlimited donations, and they must disclose their donors, but they can also take money from groups that don't disclose donors.

"Super PACs are viewed as even more untrustworthy or influential, because they are funded by sometimes a very small concentration of wealthy powerful individuals, and sometimes coming from dark sources," says says Sheila Krumholz, Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Can candidates ban super PACS?

No, candidates and campaigns can't legally coordinate with super PACs. "Disavowing super PACs is easy, because candidates don't have control over them," says Krumholz.

For example, Cory Booker is among the many candidates who have rejected money from corporate PACs. But that hasn't stopped a wealthy Democratic donor for launching a super PAC in support of Booker anyway. And not all super PACs are alike. Some candidates might not mind the ones that promote causes or issues they agree with.

What about corporate PACS?

The baseline for entry in the Democratic primary this cycle seems to be rejecting money from corporate PACs. Nearly every candidate so far has taken an unofficial pledge. But again, it's an easy pledge to make.

"This corporate PAC pledge is so popular, because it's easy to make without damaging your viability," says Krumholz. "It's easy for people to get that PACs are powerful-- and many believe too powerful--in Washington, operating as transactional figures."

Campaign finance experts say that money from corporate PACs is limited and not as influential and pervasive as super PACs.

It "may be more about political strategy than about an expression of purity," says Krumholz. "Corporate PAC donations are not coming from the corporate treasury, they are coming through the employees. If they were to say I'm not going to take any money from individuals associated with these core industries, that would be something."

Kirsten Gillibrand, for example, has shunned corporate PAC money as she explores a bid for the presidency, but still held a fundraiser with an executive of Pfizer. In an interview with Fox News, Gillibrand said she did not see a contradiction, describing the executive hosting the fundraiser as "a dear friend who I've known for years and years who believes in my gay rights platform and believes in women's rights and women's equality...I'm going to ask Americans all across the country to support my campaign."

What does Dark Money mean?

The term refers to any money that is unaccountable to a known source. And it typically refers to spending by tax-exempt nonprofits that engage in some political activity, known under the tax code as a 501(c)(4). These groups can raise unlimited amounts of money without having to disclose donors. They can't contribute directly to a candidate, but they can contribute unlimited amounts to super PACs. 

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