THE MOST EXPENSIVE ELECTION EVER

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. Therefore, an election season can’t go by without a post about campaign spending.

The 2020 elections will be the most expensive on record by a good margin – over twice as expensive as the runner up, the 2016 election – and the amount of that money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) will also set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through entities that hide the identities of their donors.

It is projected that over $14 billion (yes, that’s billion) will be spent on the 2020 campaigns. Well over $2.5 billion of that total will be spent by outside groups, where candidates (supposedly) don’t control the spending or the message. This means there’s little or no accountability for the content and that the names of donors are often hidden. The spending by outside groups has skyrocketed since the 2010 Supreme Court decision called Citizens United that allowed these groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, including money from corporations. [1] Spending by these groups is roughly double what it was in 2016. Only 30% of outside spending is being done by groups that fully disclose their donors, which is a record low. [2]

The presidential race is projected to see a record $6.6 billion in spending, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden is setting fundraising records as he and Democratic Congressional candidates are, uncharacteristically, out-raising Republican candidates. After a slow start, Biden has raised $949 million, setting a monthly fundraising record recently – a stunning $282 million raised in September. $368 million of that total (39%) has come from small donors ($200 or less) with the remaining $581 million coming from big donors. President Trump has raised $594 million. His September amount was down significantly after having consistently raised about $100 million a month in 2020. $268 million of his total (45%) has come from small donors with the remaining $326 million coming from big donors. [3]

Races for the U.S. Senate are setting spending records as well. The North Carolina Senate race has already set the record for the most expensive congressional race ever with $265 million in spending by the candidates and outside groups. The Iowa Senate race is second with $218 million in spending. As-of mid-October, 2020 already has eight of the ten most expensive Senate races ever. [4] As has happened before, the highest profile races are raising high percentages of their funding from out-of-state, with races in Maine, Kentucky, and South Carolina receiving over 90% of their funding from out-of-state. [5]

A new wrinkle in this year’s campaigns has been the $1 billion spent on digital advertising. There are over 80,000 on-line political advertisers, which is four times the number of political committees registered with the Federal Elections Commission. The great bulk of this spending is, of course, going to Facebook and Google. [6]

Although more money than ever is coming from small donors ($200 or less), it still represents less than one-quarter of the money raised. More women are donating more money than ever before as well. Democrats have raised $1.7 billion in small donations and Republicans $1 billion. These small donors account for 22% of the money raised in 2020 compared to 15% in 2016. One and a half million women have donated to candidates for federal offices, accounting for 44% of donors and $2.5 billion by mid-October, up from 37% of donors and $1.3 billion for the whole election period in 2016.  Self-funding of campaigns by billionaires was also up, accounting for over 13% of total spending. Democrats Bloomberg and Steyer were responsible for much of this. [7]

Money skews our elections in many ways. First and foremost, the candidate with the most money usually wins. Second, the great majority of the money is contributed by a very small slice of the population. A big chunk of it is given by a very few, very wealthy donors who contribute huge sums. The top ten donors and their spouses have contributed over $642 million with almost all of it (98%) going to outside groups. This has been skewed toward supporting Republicans, although Democrats aren’t too far behind. Sheldon Adelson (a casino magnate) and his spouse set a new individual record with $183 million in donations, all to outside groups supporting Republicans. Business interests have given almost $4.6 billion through mid-October – 40% of total election contributions, compared to $3.6 billion for the whole 2016 election. Contributions from labor interests, on the other hand, are declining and have been only $175 million so far. [8]

The high cost of running a successful campaign, from President all the way down to state representative, skews our politics because it makes it necessary for almost all candidates to solicit large donations from wealthy individuals. (Senators Sanders and Warren have shown that it is possible to run competitive primary campaigns without the majority of campaign funding coming from wealthy donors, but they are the exceptions.) This skews candidates’ time and attention, both when running for office and when they are in office, toward these wealthy individuals rather than toward the needs and interests of the everyday Americans who are their constituents.

In addition, the high cost of campaigning skews our politics because people who can’t raise these large sums of money don’t even bother to run for office.

If we want democracy, where policies represent the needs and wishes of the majority of the population, if we want the government of, by, and for the people that our American democratic vision promised, we must reduce the amount of money it takes to run a successful campaign and dramatically curtail the influence of wealthy individuals and interests who have large sums of money they can spend on our elections.

In a future post, I will discuss the importance of overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and other possible steps for reforming campaign financing.

[1]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/19/20, “Outside spending surpasses $2 billion as super PACs hammer Trump,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/super-pacs-hammer-trump)

[2]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, “2020 election to cost $14 billion, blowing away spending records,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/cost-of-2020-election-14billion-update/)

[3]      Evers-Hillstrom, K.., 10/21/20, “Biden heads into final weeks with record cash advantage,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/biden-crushed-fundraising-september)

[4]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[5]      Geng, L., 10/22/20, “From South Carolina to Maine, out-of-state donors give big in Senate races,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/10/senate-races-outstate-donors)

[6]      OpenSecrets.org, 9/3/20, “OpenSecrets unveils new online ads database,” Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets.org (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/09/opensecrets-unveils-new-online-ads-database/)

[7]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

[8]      OpenSecrets.org, 10/28/20, see above

2 comments

  1. carolyn fleiss · · Reply

    Eye popping stats, John. Sad but true. I hope you and Alice are well and holding on for the crazy ride this week. Carolyn

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    1. Yes, it’s horrifying to see the amounts of money sloshing around in our political system. So much for democracy and one person, one vote. I’m hoping for a huge turnout and a big margin in the presidential race and Senate races so there’s no room for shenanigans to make a difference. Keeping my fingers, toes, and eyes crossed! We’re doing well and looking forward to the end of this craziness. Take care. John

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