Money has always played a part in American politics. It has become even bigger since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. That allowed spending limits to candidates to be bypassed by allowing unlimited donations to political action committees known as super PACs. Since the mid-1970s, the cost of political campaigns has exploded. In the last few years, it has blown completely out of control.
The obscene cost to run a political campaign not only opens the door to the influence of special interests, but removes the grassroots element of political campaigns. This is true even at the local level. Campaigns have become the tool of political consultants, which is the politicizing of advertising. Snazzy commercials are filled with jingles and smiling faces or dark, foreboding fears tarred to an opponent. The human element has been removed in favor of advertising images. This is only possible because successful campaigns have wads of cash to buy an image. The end result is an estranged electorate.
Some expect that the 2016 Presidential campaign, from primaries to General Election, will cost $5 billion. Others have estimated that downward to $3 billion, but Clinton is expected to spend over a billion and could approach northwards of $2 billion. The overall lower number may be more appropriate as the Trump campaign has spent little thus far. By early June, Open Secrets reported that over $1.2 billion had already been spent for the Presidential election by all candidates.
With something around 150 million Americans registered to vote from a list of 230 million eligible voters, a campaign costing close to $5 billion would be about $30 spent on each voter. If it is $3 billion, then it would only be $20 spent per voter – not much of a bargain for either side.
To place this in perspective, an accounting of the Presidential elections since 2000, shows a spending pace far outstretching inflation. In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore spent $305 million. By 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent over $1.06 billion. That is a tripling of Presidential campaign spending. Yet, the cumulative inflation rate from 2000 until now is less than 40%.
It isn’t just Presidential elections that have blasted in cost. In 2012, the average winning Senate campaign in 2012 cost $10.2 million, and the average winning House campaign cost $1.5 million. All campaigns, from President to school board cost $6.3 billion.
The explosion in campaign spending is directly related to Citizens United, which allowed wealthy contributors to give without limit to super PACs that are entirely funded by “dark money.” That is money whose source does not need to be disclosed.
In the 2012 and 2014 Congressional elections, 60% of the $1 billion spent came from 195 individuals and their families. While there is a $5,200 limit on a contribution to a candidate, an individual is able to make an unlimited contribution to a super PAC.
American politics has always been dominated by big money. It is just that the dominance has grown larger over the last few years. For most of the nation’s history, Presidential campaigns had been funded nearly entirely by wealthy individuals. However, the campaigns were cheap. Lincoln only spent $2.8 million in 2011 dollars. By 1896, all that changed. The populist passions of William Jennings Bryan spurred tycoons to give William McKinley the equivalent of $700 million in 2011 dollars. That year’s spending record stood until 1964. The 1968 Presidential race spending broke that record but stood until 2004. The last elections have blown the spending levels off the charts.
The growth in spending is truly mind-boggling. Beyond the numbers, it squelches the voices of those who do not have millions to give. Politicians listen to the loudest rustling of money. That grants access. The contribution does not need to be made directly to a candidate either. The contributions of a well-heeled supporter to a super PAC can be appreciated just as easily as a donation directly to the campaign. In some ways, the secrecy of super PACs is even better for the candidate.
Despite the legal secrecy allowed by Citizen’s United, it is clear that the bulk of the spending acceleration is coming from just a few of the mega-rich. American democracy is merging into a plutocracy, a government run by the rich. Somehow, that seems fitting with the rise of Trumpism. For Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, it is a renouncement of his words. With incumbent politicians flush with case, there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that things will change in the near future.