Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and the rise of the crowdfunded presidential candidate

Millions are feeling the Bern.
Millions are feeling the Bern.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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The aftermath of Monday’s Iowa caucuses made one thing in particular stand out: America may be ready for a crowdfunded president.

During his victory speech, Republican candidate Ted Cruz thanked the 800,000 individual contributors who donated an average of $67 each to his campaign via his website. Less than an hour later, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders one-upped Cruz, giving a shout-out to the more than three million people who donated through his website. “And you know what the average contribution was?” Sanders said. “Twenty-seven dollars!” (This number may be closer to $29, according to the Burlington Free Press.)

As a casual observer of politics and a professional in the “innovation economy,” I see this moment as an indication that presidential politics are ripe for disruption.

Cruz has managed to rake in contributions big and small during his campaign. In October, 41% of his campaign cash came from contributors donating $200 or less. By comparison, in 2007, 22% of Barack Obama’s campaign contributions came from donations of $200 or less (that number shot up to 48% in 2011). The fact that Cruz is touting the importance of these penny-by-penny contributions—all while not calling attention to the millions he’s taken from billionaires and super PACs—reinforces the significant symbolism of microfinance. Meanwhile, Sanders, who does not have any affiliated super PACs, far outpaces Cruz in the domain of small backers, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In fact, the presidential campaign is looking more like the innovation economy every day. The top four candidates coming out of Monday’s caucuses mimic business types I know well from my experience in today’s entrepreneurial landscape.

Donald Trump is the serial entrepreneur dabbling in a new industry. He doesn’t really care for the process because he trusts his entrepreneurial instincts. With plenty of his own cash on hand and few investors to answer to, he can afford to buck convention in pursuit of what he believes is an untapped market.

Hillary Clinton is the old corporate stalwart. Like a Fortune 500 veteran, she’s got plenty of best practices and the operating expertise to back them up. But she’s also burdened with the caution that tends to accompany deep experience. Mark my words: If she wins the Democratic nomination, she’ll take the “intrapreneurial” approach that many big companies have adopted lately and acquire start-up DNA through her running mate.

Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are the two most “crowdfunded” of the successful candidates. The former is more of the scheming Harvard type, the latter more like your kooky uncle fired up about his great idea. Could either of them turn out to be a “unicorn”–that elusive magical beast every investor (and voter) is seeking?

Both of these guys are like the successful Kickstarter entrepreneurs who peddle e-ink watches and selfie drones. They’ve identified untapped desires, and they understand how to give the people what they want. But the internet is rife with stories of crowdfunded flameouts. These projects falter not because they’ve failed to raise the funds to make their ideas come to fruition, but because executing an idea is a whole lot trickier than having it. Any entrepreneur can tell you that.

I’m not saying that either candidate’s crowdfunded campaign will fail. But it’s clear they’ll face challenges ahead.

On the other hand, if we do find ourselves with a Kickstarter president-elect come November, perhaps that person really will put aside politics as usual. Would a crowdfunded president, for example, be more inclined to let the marketplace determine which policies to support? Should the military invest in the F-35? Click to back it. And if a hypothetical president Donald Trump can’t get the Mexicans to pay for his wall, he could crowdfund it. Click here to sponsor a brick for $25; for $150 you’ll also get a free download of a Pink Floyd album.

Better still, a really good president would gamify those parts of citizenship we most deplore. No one enjoys paying taxes. But lots of people are perfectly happy to shell out a few bucks for a chance to win the Powerball. What if each April 15, people who filed their taxes were automatically entered into a lottery for a chance to win cash and prizes?

In fact, if you like that idea, maybe you should vote for me. You can contribute to my campaign for 2020 at