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2015 Brought Big Money For Clinton And Bush; Sanders Led In Small Contributions

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks during a campaign event in Cedar Falls, Iowa last week.
The Takeaways:
  • Republican candidates raised more than $227 million in 2015, less than the GOP field raised in 2011.
  • The year-end reports include the first disclosure of big money from Donald Trump and reveal the precarious state of Jeb Bush's White House bid.
  • Some wealthy conservative donors, including Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, haven't put their money behind any GOP candidate yet. Big donors on the Democratic side are behind Hillary Clinton.
  • Bernie Sanders pulled in more small contributions than any of them: $54.1 million of his total $73.5 million.

As presidential candidates crisscrossed Iowa just before caucus day, their campaign committees and friendly superPACs disclosed how much they raised and spent in 2015.

The reports included the first disclosure of big money from Republican front-runner Donald Trump — $12.6 million — and the precarious state of Jeb Bush's White House bid: his campaign finished the year with $7.6 million in the bank, while the superPAC Right To Rise USA had raised $118.3 million but burned through more than half of it.

Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenberger said the campaign committee has "the resources needed to fund our best-in-the-field ground operation and paid voter contact efforts" in the primary states.

But the superPAC has been striking for its lack of success. Dan Backer, a conservative campaign finance lawyer, said Right To Rise is run by "top-shelf pros," but "no matter how much money you throw behind a candidate, people just aren't going to vote for a guy they don't want to vote for. "

All together, the Republican candidates raised a total exceeding $227 million. Anthony Corrado, a Colby College political scientist who specializes in studying political money, noted that it's significantly less than the $264.6 million raised by the GOP field in 2011.

But then there are superPACs. With the ability to raise unlimited contributions, they are far better funded than they were four years ago. A network of superPACs supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had $30 million in the bank, roughly 50 percent more than Cruz's own campaign committee. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio finished the year with $10.4 million, his nearby superPAC with $13.9 million.

There seems to be more money out there. "Rubio has gotten a little more support for his superPAC, certainly Cruz has gotten a little more support," said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the foundation New America. "But there's still a lot of big money waiting to pick a horse in the Republican field."

Among the wealthy conservative donors who aren't backing any presidential candidate yet: Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who spent heavily on behalf of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich four years ago, and billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have avoided presidential primaries up till now. Freedom Partners Action Fund, a superPAC in the political network built by the Kochs, reported it received $3 million from Charles Koch via a personal trust.

Among Democrats, big donors seem less hesitant.

"It looks like the big money in the Democratic field has picked its horse, and the horse's name is Hillary Clinton," Drutman said.

Clinton is backed by Priorities USA Action, a superPAC created to help President Obama in 2012. It raised $41 million last year, spent less than $6 million and ended the year with $35.8 million available. Among its million-dollar donors, financier George Soros gave $7 million.

Clinton, meanwhile, raised $110.2 million for her campaign committee — of which $19 million was in contributions of $200 or less. Only two Republicans did better with small donors: Cruz and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton's chief rival, pulled in more small contributions than any of them: $54.1 million of his total $73.5 million. Sanders has adamantly refused to raise money for a superPAC , although several outside groups are supporting him.

As of Jan. 1, Clinton's bank account was not much fatter than Sanders's. She had $38 million on hand, Sanders $28.3 million.

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