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Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to guests at an event sponsored by Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago on Sept. 28, 2015. (Getty Images) Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to guests at an event sponsored by Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago on Sept. 28, 2015. (Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks to guests at an event sponsored by Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago on Sept. 28, 2015. (Getty Images)

Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu September 30, 2015

Is Bernie Sanders the only presidential candidate without a super PAC?

It’s no secret that Bernie Sanders isn’t a fan of billionaires and, according to Sanders himself, he’s practically the only 2016 presidential candidate to refuse their money as well.

The democratic socialist senator from Vermont has long criticized campaign finance law and offered legislation to flush big money out of the political arena. His campaign prides itself on its small donations.

Speaking at the University of Chicago on Sept. 28, Sanders vowed to nominate Supreme Court justices who will overturn Citizens United, the landmark 2010 decision that opened the floodgates for unlimited donations to political fundraising organizations known as super PACs. That same day, Sanders took to Twitter to demonstrate his consistency.  

"Unlike virtually every other campaign, we don't have a super PAC which collects money from billionaires and corporations," he tweeted.

We wanted to look at which 2016 candidates have a super PAC. Is Sanders really the only candidate out of the 15 Republicans and six Democrats without one?

A who’s who of outside spending

We compiled data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance research group, and a Washington Post analysis. We found that Sanders’ claim largely checks out, albeit with some caveats.

Sanders and Donald Trump are the only major candidates without an affiliated super PAC, the type that are typically campaign surrogates. But he and Trump both have unaffiliated super PACs backing them. We’ll get to the distinction in just a bit.

Here’s a breakdown of various super PACs connected to the 2016 candidates. The data comes from the July 2015 quarterly filing to the Federal Election Commission. New quarterly reports are due in October 2015:


Affiliated super PACs

Unaffiliated super PACs

Total raised (as of July 15, 2015)

Jeb Bush, R-Fla.

Right to Rise

• Millennials Rising

• Vamos for Jeb


Ben Carson, R

One Vote PAC

• National Draft Ben Carson for President

• For a Better Tomorrow


Chris Christie, R-N.J.

America Leads

• Ready for Christie


Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

Priorities USA Action

• Faith Voters PAC

• Balance of Power

• BillForFirstLady2016


Ted Cruz, R-TX

Keep the Promise

Keep the Promise I

Keep the Promise II
Keep the Promise III

• Crusaders PAC

• Jruz PAC

• Take DC Back

• Stand for Principle


Carly Fiorina, R

Carly for America

• Unlocking Potential


Jim Gilmore, R-Va.

Growth PAC



Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Security Is Strength

Featured Fact-check

• West Main Street Values


Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.

Pursuing America's Greatness



Bobby Jindal, R-La.

Believe Again



John Kasich, R-Ohio

New Day for America 2016



Martin O’Malley, D-Md.

Generation Forward



George Pataki, R-N.Y

We the People, Not Washington PAC



Rand Paul, R-Ky..

Concerned American Voters

America's Liberty

Purple PAC

• Forever Free PAC

• Human Action

• Rand PAC 2016



Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Conservative Solutions PAC

• Students for Rubio

• Americans for Marco Rubio


Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Working Again



Donald Trump, R


• Make America Great Again

• Hispanic Citizens for Donald Trump


Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.


• Collective Actions PAC

• BillionairesForBernie



Surrogates versus supporters

The difference between unaffiliated and affiliated super PACs "gets to the core issue of coordination and non-coordination in the post-Citizens United era," said Robert McGuire, a research analyst with the Center for Responsive Politics.

Affiliated super PACs are often created or staffed by the candidate's political allies and act as extensions of the official campaigns. Though these independent groups are not allowed to donate directly to or coordinate with campaigns, they’ve have found ways to toe the line.

A few examples: Jeb Bush’s longtime strategist and friend Mike Murphy heads his Right to Rise super PAC, which has advertised on his behalf.  Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign manager Guy Cecil is at the helm of the pro-Clinton Priorities Action USA, while her current campaign manager has met with potential PAC donors. Martin O’Malley’s Generation Forward super PAC, established by his former press secretary, has run attack ads against Sanders.  

Unaffiliated super PACs are different. The two pro-Sanders super PACs -- Collective Actions PAC and Billionaires for Bernie -- have no ties to Sanders or his campaign.

In fact, Sanders team has asked the unaffiliated super PACs to cut it out. Sanders’ lawyers "have told them to stop," said Michael Briggs, communications director for the Sanders campaign, referring to a cease and desist letter sent to one that formed recently. (That group didn’t file with the FEC until mid September, but received a $50,000 donation from Daniel Craig, the actor who portrays James Bond.)

But because anyone can register a super PAC (this fact-check would be remiss to not mention Stephen Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow), candidates can do little to stop one from forming and declaring its support.

The distinction between an affiliated super PAC and an unaffiliated one is significant, said Anthony Corrado, a professor who studies campaign finance at Colby College.

"Sanders has been clear in disavowing any such efforts and noting that he does not want the support of such groups," he said. "So I do not believe the mere existence of a registered committee renders his point invalid."

Ahead of the PACs

We should note that Sanders isn’t the only presidential candidate without an affiliated super PAC. The same could be said of Democratic rivals former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (who’s polling at 0.8 percent), former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (who’s polling at 0 percent) and Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig (who doesn’t appear in the polls at all and who, before declaring his candidacy, famously started a super PAC dedicated to ending all super PACs).

But among the more prominent candidates, Sanders is indeed the odd man out.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has more affiliated super PACs than anyone else (four), while Bush’s Right to Rise has raised the most money by far: more than $103 million. In Sanders’ own party, the pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action has raised $15.6 million.

Donald Trump, who repeatedly touts his financial independence from donors, seems to be friendly with a super PAC created in his honor. While Trump’s not coordinating with the group on the same level as Bush or Clinton, the connections are certainly stronger than Sanders’ with his backers and "worth noting," said McGuire.

The billionaire attended a New York fundraiser hosted by the Make America Great Again PAC in July and said he’s grateful for their support, reports Politico. The group also received a $100,000 donation from the in-laws of Trump’s daughter Ivanka, according to Politico.

Our ruling

Sanders tweeted, "Unlike virtually every other campaign, we don't have a Super PAC which collects money from billionaires and corporations."

Out of the 21 presidential candidates, Sanders is one of five who doesn’t have an affiliated super PAC. Sanders’ qualifier -- "virtually" -- makes his claim more accurate.

If we narrow the count to major candidates, only Sanders and Trump can claim that, but both have two unaffiliated super PACs backing their candidacy. Trump has appeared at a fundraiser for one super PAC that’s also received donations from his in-laws. Sanders, meanwhile, has disassociated himself with these groups, through statements and legal action.

We rate Sanders’ claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Twitter, Bernie Sanders, Sept. 28, 2015

Phone and email interviews with Michael Briggs, communications director for Bernie Sanders, Sept. 29-30, 2015

Phone interview with Robert McGuire, analyst at the Center for Responsive Politics, Sept. 29, 2015

Email interview with Anthony Corrado, campaign finance professor at Colby College, Sept. 29, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, "Behind the Candidates: Campaign Committees and Outside Groups," Sept. 30, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Find a PAC database, accessed Sept. 28-30, 2015

Washington Post, "The 2016 presidential contenders and their big-money backers," Aug. 11, 2015

Bernie Sanders Senator for Vermont, "Court Weakens Campaign Finance Law," June 25, 2007

Youtube, "Senator Bernie Sanders on Campaign Finance Reform preview," Jan. 31, 2012

The Nation, "Bernie Sanders Raises Battle Cry Against Citizens United: ‘I Vote for Democracy!’," April 11, 2014

Bernie Sanders Senator for Vermont, "A Bill," March 12, 2013

Bernie Sanders Senator for Vermont, "Joint Resolution," 2011

Bernie Sanders, "Bernie Racks Up Big Numbers from Small Donors, FEC Report Shows," July 15, 2015

New York Times, "Bernie Sanders's Success in Attracting Small Donors Tests Importance of ‘Super Pacs’", Aug. 25, 2015

CNN, "Bernie Sanders' Supreme Court litmus test: Overturn Citizens United," Sept. 28, 2015

USA Today, "Presidential super PACs push campaign limits," Sept. 22, 2015

Washington Post, "It’s bold, but legal: How campaigns and their super PAC backers work together," July 6, 2015

CNN, "Jeb Bush super PAC drops $24 million on ads," Sept. 15, 2015

Politico, "Guy Cecil poised to join pro-Hillary super PAC," May 1, 2015

PolitiFact, "Did Bernie Sanders vote against background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases?" July 10, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Right To Rise Super PAC, accessed Sept. 29-30, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Priorities Action USA, accessed Sept. 29-30, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Generation Forward, accessed Sept. 29-30, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Collective Actions PAC, accessed Sept. 29-30, 2015

Center for Responsive Politics, Billionaires for Bernie, accessed Sept. 29-30, 2015

Washington Post, "There’s a new super PAC for Bernie Sanders. It wants billionaire donors," July 15, 2015

Center for Public Integrity, Cease and desist letter, June 12, 2015

Politico, "Trump attended big-donor fundraiser last month," Aug. 23, 2015

PolitiFact, "Meme says Hillary Clinton's top donors are banks and corporations, Bernie Sanders' are labor unions," July 7, 2015

PolitiFact, "Which side spent more on the 2014 midterms, Democrats or Republicans?", Nov. 6, 2014

New York Times, "'Super PACs’ Spent Millions Before Candidates Announced, Filings Show," July 31, 2015

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