MONEY IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Our elections are, sadly, largely about money. The 2020 elections were the most expensive on record by a good margin; roughly $14 billion was spent on federal campaigns. This is over twice as much as the runner up, the 2016 election. The presidential race cost roughly $6.6 billion, a record, up from $2.4 billion in 2016. [1]

The big news is that nine of the ten most expensive U.S. Senate races of all time occurred in 2020. Those nine races cost close to $2.1 billion (so far) with North Carolina ($299 million) and South Carolina ($277 million) leading the way with Kentucky ($180 million) at the bottom of the top ten. Amazingly, these are not states with big populations and expensive advertising markets, which is where the expensive races often occur. The two Georgia Senate races, currently engaged in run-off elections, will almost certainly be in the top ten when the regular and run-off election spending is combined. Of the eight decided 2020 races, Republican incumbents won all of them except the Arizona race where Mark Kelly won the special election against Senator McSally, who had been appointed to replace Senator Kyl. [2]

The candidate who spends the most money typically wins, although this year “only” 72% of Senate candidates who spent the most won, which is a two-decade low. Notably, in very expensive races, incumbents who held onto their seats spent less than their challengers. This reflects the value of incumbency, but may also reflect that there is a saturation point for money, which is largely spent on advertising. At some point, the voters may get overwhelmed by the avalanche of advertising and more spending on more advertising may have diminishing or no benefit. Another unusual characteristic of the 2020 elections was that Democratic congressional candidates out-raised Republicans by $1.2 billion to $691 million. Nonetheless, Democrats lost seats in the House and made only slight gains in the Senate.

The amount of money spent by outside groups (i.e., not by the candidates themselves) set a record. More and more of this outside money is flowing through “dark money” groups that hide the identities of their donors.  Outside spending is theoretically independent of the candidates’ campaigns and therefore lacks any accountability for what is said and done. The top two Senate races for outside spending were North Carolina at $221 million and Iowa at $174 million.

On the other end of the spectrum, small individual donations ($200 or less) to federal candidates set a record at $1.8 billion. As-of mid-October, small donors had already contributed over three times as much as they did through election day in 2016. Their donations represent 27% of contributions to federal candidates (up from 21% in 2016) but still only 13% of total spending. This record giving probably results from the increased ease of contributing using on-line technology and the heightened focus on and polarization of national politics.

Out-of-state contributions to congressional candidates set records, increasing for both Democrats and Republicans in both House and Senate races. Notably, Democrats running for the Senate raised a record 80% of donations from out-of-state; Democratic candidates in Kentucky and South Carolina raised more than 90% of their money from out-of-state.

Campaign contributions by women set a record. Their giving to federal candidates was $1.4 billion or 41% of the total, up from $590 million and 36% in 2016. Their giving represented 45% of Democratic candidates’ fundraising and 33% for Republicans; both of which are records.

In summary, the bad news is that huge contributions are fueling incredible levels of campaign spending. It is important to reflect on who is contributing these huge amounts to candidates and outside groups, why are they doing it, and what they expect in return. People and organizations that give this kind of money don’t just throw their money away, they invest it and are looking for a return on investment. They are looking for policies that benefit them and their companies.

The good news is that contributions from small donors are increasing and can fuel a serious campaign even for our highest elected offices. Increasing participation by women is also good news. Nonetheless, the people who contribute at all to political campaigns are a very small fraction of voters.

A major transformation of our campaign finance system is needed if we want elected officials to be beholden to their constituents and not to wealthy campaign contributors; in other words, if we want democracy instead of plutocracy. Limits are needed on who can contribute (e.g., not corporations) and how much can be contributed – which will require a constitutional amendment given Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United. In the meantime, increased disclosure of campaign contributions is needed, in part to eliminate “dark money” so voters know who is spending money on a candidate’s campaign.

A campaign finance system that encourages and rewards small contributions to candidates is needed. Such a system would match small contributions with public money. This would allow and encourage a greater diversity of candidates to run for office.  It would also allow limitations on who and how much can be given to anyone who accepts the public funding. The ultimate result would be elected officials who are beholden to voters, not wealthy contributors, and a return to government of, by, and for the people, rather than a plutocracy where the wealthy rule and get favorable treatment from government.

 

[1]      OpenSecrets.org & Followthemoney.org, 11/19/20, “Unprecedented donations poured into 2020 state and federal races,” Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/11/2020-state-and-federal-races-nimp)

[2]      Miller, E., 12/9/20, “Nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races of all time happened in 2020,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/12/most-expensive-races-of-all-time-senate2020)

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