Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


presidential-campaigns

The floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (PHOTO: TWINKLETOEZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Cost of a Presidential Campaign

• July 02, 2013 • 10:00 AM

The floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (PHOTO: TWINKLETOEZ/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Charting the cost of presidential elections since 1860 on two different spending measures: dollars spent per thousand dollars of GDP, and dollars spent per vote cast.

Just how much was spent on last year’s presidential election? A simple answer is $1.1 billion—that’s how much the Romney and Obama campaigns spent on advertising, staff, volunteer offices, etc., according to numbers compiled by OpenSecrets.org.

But that figure is likely massively misleading. For an excellent and detailed explanation as to why, I strongly encourage you to read political scientist Michael Franz’s new piece “Bought and Sold: The High Price of the Permanent Campaign” in The American Interest. But I’ll try to convey some thoughts here about the challenges we face in measuring spending in presidential campaigns and how we attempt to figure out whether $1.1 billion is a lot of money or not.

Probably a better question than “How much was spent?” is “Was 2012 an unusual year for spending?” We can answer that by comparing spending in 2012 to previous years, but one problem with just talking about the raw number of dollars is that it fails to address important changes in the country over time. That is, even if we can adjust the spending levels for inflation, that doesn’t take into account the fact that the nation is wealthier and larger than it used to be, and that the costs for running for office have shifted significantly. For example, television advertising time has gotten more expensive in recent decades, but electronic communications (email, Web ads, social media, etc.) have dramatically shrunk the costs of getting a single piece of advertising in front of a typical voter. It’s also a lot cheaper for a candidate to travel around the country than it was 100 years ago, but they’re expected to do a lot more of that now.

Here is a chart comparing a selection of presidential elections since 1860 based on two different spending measures: dollars spent per vote cast, and dollars spent per thousand dollars of gross domestic product (inspired by this post from Dave Gilson). The first measure attempts to compensate for the growing population, the second for the growing wealth of the country:spending in prez elections

As can be seen, spending in 2012 was basically the same as spending in 2008 by both measures, but both of these elections were relatively pricey compared to those of recent decades; we’ve been on an increase since 2000, when presidential candidates started abandoning the public finance limits set in the early 1970s. Still, note that these elections don’t hold a candle to 1896, when six cents out of every hundred dollars spent in the U.S. went toward a presidential candidate. That election (and 1892, which isn’t depicted here) were about the most expensive in history by many measures. As Franz explains, this was when East Coast Republican financiers devoted huge sums to presidential campaigns to protect their financial interests from what they (correctly) perceived to be a threat from politically agitated Western farmers.

Franz also notes, though, that even these spending figures are inadequate. The dollars-per-voter figure above, for example, doesn’t deal with the fact that the campaigns aren’t really trying for all of the votes that will ultimately turn out. Roughly 28 million votes came out of California, New York, and Texas last year—that’s 22 percent of all the votes that would be cast nationwide—but the presidential campaigns didn’t lift a finger to win those votes from those non-competitive states. Most of the money spent just went to a handful of swing states.

The spending figures above also fail to account for spending by parties, 527s, Super PACs, interest groups, and other organizations devoted to influencing the outcome of the presidential campaign. Some of these figures are knowable; some are simply beyond our ability to track. But all evidence suggests that this spending is on the rise. As Franz writes:

[C]osts are higher because of both supply and demand factors. The supply of cash more readily flows from interest groups (and did for parties in the 1990s) because of lower barriers to entry (that is, less stringent campaign finance laws). At the same time, the demand for cash is higher than ever due to our evenly divided and ever-shifting political landscape.

That is, it’s easier for outside groups to get involved than it used to be, and the national political scene is more competitive than it used to be.

There doesn’t look to be much movement toward tighter regulation of political contributions right now. And the national political environment doesn’t look to be getting any less competitive. (Can we state with any certainty which party will likely control the White House or either chamber of Congress after the next election?) Given that, we can probably expect spending to continue to rise for the foreseeable future. This is not in itself a bad thing! Remember, most campaign spending is just a public information and voter turnout campaign financed voluntarily by the wealthiest Americans, and it doesn’t have nearly the impact on the vote that many claim it does. But if political ads on television annoy you, you might want to take up book reading in 2016.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

Study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.