2016's big surprise: The power of small money in politics

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Media Outlet: CNN

Much of the 2016 primary season has been ugly and unsettling: Fights breaking out at rallies, campaign rhetoric that makes parents cringe and tabloid stories impacting the mainstream news.

But there have been glimmers of light to come out of this competition that can offer ways to improve future elections. Nowhere is this clearer than with the power of small money.

We entered this political season with the assumption that big money would dominate every step of the process. Figures such as Sheldon Adelson loomed large in national conversations about who held power. And large contributions certainly have played a big role. Adelson, the Koch Brothers and other figures have bankrolled many of the candidates in this race.

Freed from older campaign finance restrictions that have come undone over the decades, super PAC donors had lined up behind the big name candidates. The flow of big money has been powerful and, to some, disturbing.

Yet the conventional wisdom that big money would invariably dominate has been wrong. Small contributions have been a hugely significant part of this campaign.

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Julian Zelizer is a fellow in New America's Political Reform program. He is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and writes a weekly column for CNN.com.