Darrell Kiedrowski, 68, a retired chemical engineer who came to see Donald Trump in Las Vegas, is eager for a presidential candidate who “owes nothing to anyone.” Jose Gastelum, a 36-year-old Navy veteran who saw Bernie Sanders in Tucson, said he can afford to donate “10 bucks here, 10 bucks there, but not millions of dollars.” And Sandra Belzer Brendale, 62, who turned out to see Rand Paul in New Hampshire, said, “The money spent on elections is obscene.”
The dominance of the super-rich in American politics appears to be animating voters more this year than in any recent campaign, pushing them to outsider candidates who denounce the influence of wealthy donors.
Perhaps the most unexpected beneficiary has been Trump, a billionaire real estate tycoon who rails about politicians’ dependency on their benefactors. But the backlash can be seen across the field, buoying antiestablishment figures such as Sanders and sending longtime politicians scrambling to prove their independence.
As another fundraising report deadline looms Thursday, there is palpable anger in the electorate about the huge sums that have poured into elections in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that helped undo key restrictions on big money in campaigns. Nearly 8 in 10 Americans think the ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, should be overturned, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll last month.
“Voters are furious about it, but they hadn’t heard candidates speaking about the issue,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a nonpartisan public interest group. “That’s plainly changed in the 2016 race.”
At Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, former senator Jim Webb of Virginia decried how money “has corrupted our political process, intimidating incumbents.”
Sanders hit on the same theme throughout the night, decrying “this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision.”
“Millionaires and billionaires are pouring unbelievable sums of money into the political process in order to fund super PACs and to elect candidates who represent their interests, not the interests of working people,” said the senator from Vermont, who stressed that he has refused the help of an outside group.
The issue repeatedly crops up on the campaign trail.
One insurgent Democratic candidate, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, is centering his campaign on reducing money in politics. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton derides “unaccountable, dark money” and says she would appoint Supreme Court justices who would reverse Citizens United. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush promises he would “disrupt” Washington, saying last week that “the insiders are the ones who have the power there, and it’s not working.”
Even as they attack big money and special interests, however, most of the candidates are benefiting from the support of one or more allied super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. Clinton is directly coordinating with a super PAC that is not running ads, taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. Right to Rise USA, the super PAC backing Bush, raised more than $100 million in the first half of the year.
Such eye-popping sums have fed another dominant theme in the 2016 race: anger over the yawning gap between the 1 percent and the middle class.
Voters “feel like they don’t have a say anymore,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), who said constituents complain about the amount of money in politics at every one of his town hall meetings.
Some conservatives argue that voters are not getting the full picture of how fewer constraints on political donations benefit free speech.
“I believe anybody who understands anything about the case . . . understands the incredible victory that Citizens United was,” said David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group by the same name that brought the Supreme Court case.
He is deeply skeptical that the decision will have any impact at the ballot box.
“People have been angry about money in politics for decades,” Bossie said, adding: “There is a huge, enormous canyon between griping about something and letting it determine your vote.”
At a gathering of libertarian-leaning Republicans in New Hampshire last week, consultant Austin Sekel, 22, said he thinks that people “should be able to donate as much as they want to whomever they please,” as long as their identity is public.
Still, the issue’s potency is evident in the political debate, most notably in the way the Republican contenders are stressing their grass-roots support.
“I am not going out and licking the boots of billionaires and special interest groups,” retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told a group of retirees in Exeter, N.H., last month. “I’m not getting in bed with them. . . . The people are funding us.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) struck a similar theme during a stop Monday in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where he lambasted lobbyists who “deliver campaign checks, usually by the wheelbarrow.”
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has explicitly called for overturning Citizens United.
“That would be a priority for me, because if you don’t get this fixed, I think the days of problem-solving are behind us,” the Republican told a bipartisan crowd in New Hampshire on Monday.
Perhaps no one has seized on the issue more than Trump, who has made his wealth and independence a central theme of his campaign.
“I’m self-funding my own campaign,” the billionaire businessman told supporters at a rally in Las Vegas last week, prompting some of his loudest cheers that afternoon. “I’m the only one!”
“It’s amazing, the response,” he added as the applause died down. “I mean, people love it, because all of these guys are totally controlled by the special interests and the lobbyists.”
At a rally in suburban Atlanta on Saturday, Trump warned the crowd that when he turns down donors, they may then finance his opponents.
“Should I take the money?” he asked. The crowd responded with a loud: “Noooooo.”
“No? No?” Trump repeated. The audience came at him again with another booming “No!”
Trump’s most dedicated supporters — the sort who joined Twitter just to read his messages, drive hours to his rallies and wait in long lines to get a close spot — tout his inability to be bought as one of the main reasons they support him.
“I love the idea that he’s not accountable to anybody other than himself,” said Francis Wise, 64, a retired county plan examiner and building inspector who is volunteering for Trump’s campaign in Nevada.
A similar sentiment courses through the crowds that assemble to cheer on Sanders. The self-described democratic socialist warns in his stump speech that the United States is becoming “an oligarchy.”
“All of these people are turning out because he’s hearing our voices and not being bought,” said Danielle Jancarole, a 23-year-old supervisor at Kohl’s who was among an estimated 13,000 people who packed a rally for Sanders in Tucson on Friday night.
The next day, Sanders drew about 9,000 people in Boulder, Colo., where he warned that “the fundamentals of American democracy are being completely undermined.”
That resonated with Bill Rubin, a 62-year-old tax accountant who lives in unincorporated Boulder County.
“If you have to go beg for money, there’s a lot of quid pro quos going on,” he said. “It pushes people in directions they would not be going in.”
The expanded spotlight on the influence of wealthy donors is due in part to advocates for stricter campaign finance limits, who have begun efforts in New Hampshire and Iowa to make the issue a priority during the primary season.
“I can visualize the country throwing up its arms and making this the biggest single issue of our times,” said Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman in Iowa who is co-chairing the group Iowa Pays the Price. “There is no way whatsoever that the public accepts this for long.”
Johnson reported from Las Vegas, Atlanta and New Hampshire. Philip Rucker in Washington, John Wagner in Boulder, Colo., and Katie Zezima in Fort Dodge, Iowa, contributed to this report.