White House High Rollers

(AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke, File)

In this January 25, 2006 file photo, Senator John McCain, left, chats with Senator Russ Feingold on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 21, 2010 threw out a 63-year-old law designed to restrain the influence of big business and unions on elections, ruling that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress. The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he assembled a fundraising effort more effective than any the country had ever seen. During the primary campaign, Bush's fundraising approached $100 million, an unprecedented total many at the time found mind-boggling. Yet just eight years later, Barack Obama's campaign raised $191 million in the month of September alone. This year's September haul for Obama was $181 million.

Ask a media consultant about the increasing amount of money being spent on presidential elections, and he'll reply, "Hey, Proctor & Gamble spends a billion and a half dollars every year advertising soap and diapers. Shouldn't we spend at least that much on deciding who will lead the country?" It isn't a completely unreasonable point, but one thing we can't deny is that in the last few cycles the amount of money we spend has skyrocketed. Somehow we used to manage to elect presidents with each side spending only in the tens of millions of dollars, but those days are behind us for good.

Before we look where we are today, let's take a brief tour through the history of presidential campaign money. The story can begin with Teddy Roosevelt, who after his re-election in 1904 began decrying the corrupting influence of money on government, with corporations paying off politicians and government employees forced to kick back part of their salaries to the parties to whom they owed their jobs. The first result was the Tillman Act of 1907, which made it illegal for corporations to donate to federal candidates. Other laws followed, but they were hampered by the lack of any mechanism to enforce them. Then in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which brought to light how companies and wealthy individuals had been supplying Richard Nixon with huge amounts of hidden funding, Congress passed a series of amendments to the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). These 1974 amendments created the Federal Election Commission, put limits on contributions, and established the system of public funding for presidential campaigns. The 1976 election was the first in which presidential candidates received federal funds for their general election campaigns, as well as some primary matching funds and money to put on their conventions.

Over the next couple of decades, the amount of money spent on presidential campaigns rose steadily but slowly. Candidates got slightly more from the public fund each year, while their own primary spending rose, but not steeply. Meanwhile, outside groups engaged in a cyclical pattern: Congress would pass a law restricting outside spending, clever lawyers would identify loopholes in those laws, well-moneyed interests would move in to exploit those loopholes, and if a loophole was closed a new loophole would be found. First it was political action committees (PACs), then it was "527s," and in the post-Citizens United world it's super PACs and 501(c)(4) "social welfare organizations."

While we all remember the excruciatingly lengthy battle over the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain-Feingold), the real increase in campaign spending came between the enactment of the BCRA in 2002 and the 2011 Citizens United decision, which struck much of the BCRA down. In other words, Citizens United may have provided a new avenue for the Sheldon Adelsons of the world to inject huge amounts of money into campaigns, but the campaigns were already getting dramatically more expensive without them.

Seen from today, the amounts spent in prior years look piddling. For instance, between the beginning of his 1996 campaign and his convention, Bob Dole spent $42 million; after his convention he received $61.8 million in federal funding for the general election, meaning his entire campaign was run, start to finish, on just over $100 million (not counting money spent by the RNC). George W. Bush spent a total of $163 million four years later, but it was 2004 when things ramped up. Total spending by the two nominees more than doubled between 2000 and 2004, and then nearly doubled again between 2004 and 2008. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to decline federal funding, which requires the candidate to spend only that money once the convention is over, since the system began in 1976. He went on to spend $745 million. John McCain accepted that funding ($84 million in 2008), and he will probably be the last.

The increase is even more dramatic if we look just at the primary campaigns; here again, George W. Bush was the innovator. Unlike previous presidents who slowly assembled their campaigns while the other party's contenders were fighting for the nomination, Bush moved aggressively during 2003 and early 2004, spending well over $200 million by the time his convention took place. This year, by the party conventions Barack Obama had spent $354 million despite having no opponent, while Mitt Romney's campaign spent a significantly smaller $233 million in dispatching his primary opponents and preparing for the general election. 

These figures don't account for spending by the parties, nor do they include outside money, which this year will be bigger than ever now that Citizens United has made it so much easier for wealthy people, groups, and corporations to spend large sums to influence the election. But the presidential campaigns will still be the biggest spenders. In August, the Center for Responsive Politics projected that spending on all federal races will total $5.8 billion this year, up from $5.4 billion four years ago. The biggest portion of that figure will be the presidential candidates themselves, though they estimate that outside groups could spend a total of $750 million.

That's a pretty hefty chunk of change—in fact, it's almost three times as much as George W. Bush and Al Gore spent, combined, in all of the 2000 election. That was just twelve years ago. Who knows what things will be like 12 years from now.

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