For years, environmental activists have been pushing for divestment from fossil fuels, asking large pension funds and educational institutions to drop oil and gas companies from their big investment portfolios. The implication is obvious: Money related to fossil fuel companies, like the products of those companies that are causing climate change, is dirty.
That implication has another resonance in politics. Bernie Sanders has made campaign contributions a focus of his campaign, repeatedly calling campaign finance corrupt and suggesting that elected officials are beholden to their funders. On Thursday afternoon, Sanders's push to cut campaign funding collided with environmental opposition to money from Big Oil at a Hillary Clinton event in New York.
An activist from Greenpeace approached Clinton to ask if the candidate would "reject fossil-fuel money in the future" in her campaign. Clinton, incensed, replied that her contributions came from employees of oil companies -- not the companies themselves -- and that she was "so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me."
Clinton's campaign followed up with a statement noting that the "campaign has not taken a dollar from oil and gas industry PACs or corporations."
The Center for Responsive Politics compiles data on the money given to candidates by industry, and Clinton and the PACs supporting her have raised more from that industry than has Sanders. Both totals, though, are far less than has been given to Republicans -- especially Republicans from the oil-rich states of Texas and Louisiana.
But note: Both Democrats have received money from "the oil and gas industry." The total for Clinton's campaign is about $308,000; for Sanders's, it's about $54,000. As Clinton noted in the moment, the Center for Responsive Politics mostly aggregates contributions by employer. If a guy who runs the commissary at Chevron in California gives $27 to Bernie Sanders, that's counted as "oil and gas industry" money.
As a percentage of all the money campaigns have raised, both Clinton and Sanders have only raised a fraction of their totals from that industry.
If you’re looking for influence from the industry, you’re probably looking for something more like Bobby Jindal's totals than the Democrats'. About 0.15 percent of Clinton's campaign and outside PAC money is from the "oil and gas industry." Only about 0.04 percent of Sanders's is.
So let's unpack the question from that Greenpeace activist. The suggestion appears to be that this 0.15 percent of all Clinton fundraising -- a percentage that, again, consists of contributions from employees of oil and gas companies regardless of job title -- somehow influences Clinton's behavior. The activist didn't connect the dots, but the implication is that this 0.15 percent makes Clinton more susceptible to the lures of the oil industry than does Sanders's 0.04 percent.
Where the attack against Clinton lands more firmly, though, is not in considering these contributions from people who run BP franchises but in considering the lobbyists that back Clinton.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, no candidate has received more money from lobbyists -- or, again, those who work for lobbyists -- than Clinton, to the tune of some $860,000. Those lobbyists also help fundraise for Clinton, bundling contributions from sources to her benefit. (This isn't unique to Clinton, of course. Bundling contributions is common in most campaigns.) Some of those bundlers are lobbyists who represent oil and gas companies.
To 350 Action, a prominent environmental activist group, this bundled money was a "gray area" in terms of the pledge to not take money from the fossil fuel industry, according to a report from FactCheck late last year. Regardless, 350's Jamie Henn said that, at the time, Clinton was "probably in accordance" with the pledge.
Those lobbyists, though, are a much stronger representative of the way money influences politics than are campaign contributions. It is literally a lobbyist's job to build relationships with elected officials that can then be leveraged by clients to influence policy. It's relationships, not money, that drive politics in Washington. Yes, money helps build relationships, which is why the lobbyists are bundling. But they aren't just doing so for Chevron, Exxon, et al. The link is murkier than that. The system is often ugly and frequently questionable, but it's usually not as ugly and obvious as quid pro quo.
Greenpeace's understanding of money, oil and the presidential race was simplistic -- as if nuance played any real role in presidential politics. Clinton was justified in being annoyed. A narrower focus on Clinton's fundraising from lobbyists would be much harder to brush off.