A recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics suggests that this will be, by a relatively wide margin, the most expensive overall election in U.S. history. According to CRP's analysis of Federal Election Commission data, the 2012 election is expected to cost....wait for it....$6 billion.
The biggest and most obvious difference in this cycle, other than the country's growing political polarization, is the amount of money being raised by outside and supposedly independent organizations that, while they are not managed by a specific candidate, are in existence to help a chosen candidate in their election bid. These groups are expected to spend more than $970 million.
Surprisingly, spending on the presidential election is down from 2008, dropping by $200 million to $2.6 billion. This spending can be broken down into three parts:
1.) $2 billion will be spent by the candidates and the major party committees.
2.) $528 million will be spent by outside organizations in their desperate attempts to sway voters.
3.) $142 million was spent on the fun and games held at the RNC and the DNC conventions held in August and September. Apparently, placards and balloons can really add up!
Spending on Congressional races is expected to rise modestly with total spending on House and Senate races rising by only $100 million from 2010, hitting $1.82 billion. House spending will rise by 3 percent to $1.1 billion and Senate spending will actually fall by 7 percent to $743 million. The lion's share of spending increases for Congressional seats is mainly among Republican candidates because of the large numbers elected in 2010. Outside spending on the 59 House contests that are deemed close or leaning to one party or the other for one week alone in mid-October totalled $41 million.
All Congressional candidates in total have raised more than $1.7 billion with average incumbents raising $1.5 million compared to only $245,000 for their challengers. Candidates that are funding their own campaigns have spent a total of more than $200 million of their own money to "win the prize". In the Senate, incumbents raised an average of $11 million over their six-year term compared to only $1.2 million for those who are challenging them.
In both the House and the Senate, Republican candidates have raised more than the Democrats in this cycle, averaging $712,000 to $594,000. Overall, this means that Republicans look set to raise 55 percent of all money raised by congressional candidates, reaching a total of $1.1 billion.
Let's take a look at outside spending. Spending by outside groups has grown from a paltry $19 million per week in early September to a frantic pace of $70 million per week in the week of October 21. American Crossroads and its non-profit counterpart, Crossroads GPS (Karl Rove's babies) together report spending more than $158 million on this election. Mitt Romney's supporting Super PAC Restore our Future has spent nearly $125 million. President Obama's supporting Super PAC Priorities USA Action reports that it has spent a total of $67 million.
Let's take a brief look at the sharp contrast in the approach taken to raising funds by the two presidential candidates. Thus far, President Obama's campaign has received donations from many, many small donations which have totalled over $214 million out of a total of $632 million as shown here:
In sharp contrast, the Romney campaign, while raising far less, has only raised $71 million out of a total of $385 million from small donors as shown here:
While small donors still play an important overall role in U.S. elections, it is the changes to laws that allow individual donors to donate unlimited funds to outside organizations, particularly nonprofits, that has greatly impacted fundraising during this election cycle. For example, while it took fewer than 40 donors to raise the $200 million received by outside organizations, it took over 350,000 small donors to raise the $71 million in small donations raised by the Romney campaign.
The Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has been a game-changer for American politics. With the advent of powerful and politically biased outside organizations, campaign fundraising has never been so opaque, nor has it been so tempting for America's wealthy ruling class to use their money to buy both politicians and ultimately, policy. If, as it would appear, money is paramount in the American political process, then the cards are held by very, very few, very, very wealthy Americans.