Dave Gilson has a great chart over at Mother Jones about how much money has been spent, historically, on running for president. The punch line is that it’s been relatively stable in inflation-adjusted dollars until the last two cycles, when it’s suddenly gone through the roof.
At least, that’s one way to look at it. The other way is that 2004 and 2008 were about catching up. Look at it this way. According to Gilson’s data, the previous long-lasting records were the 1896 campaign, which wasn’t passed until 1960, and then the 1968 election, which held the record until 2004.
But that’s only in overall, inflation-adjusted dollars. Let’s see…the Republican Party overall seems to have spent an estimated $16 million in 1896, with the McKinley campaign spending $6-7 million. Inflation alone makes us translate that $6M to over $150M, far lower than what Barack Obama spent in 2008. But then if we also think about a per-vote, or potential vote it starts sounding more like today’s numbers. After all, in 1900 there were only a bit over 76 million Americans, compared with the 310 million in the 2010 census. Of course, far fewer of those 76 million were eligible voters before the passage of the 19th amendment doubled the potential pool (and the 26th amendment lowering the voting age, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act adding to the actual potential pool). I don’t have numbers for eligible voters, but in fact 13.9 million people voted for president in 1896 – in 45 states – compared with 131.1 million votes cast in 2008. Which means that the McKinley campaign alone may have been spending more or less in the same range per eligible voter what all the campaigns combined spent in 2008.
The real anomaly, in other words, is that the post-Watergate campaign finance regime held campaign costs artificially low. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, almost all presidential spending was done through one lump-sum public financing. In the 1990s, that was supplemented by the “soft” party money that was eliminated by McCain-Feingold restrictions, but that in turn spawned a variety of new spending mechanisms. The result is that spending, per eligible voter, has finally caught up to the levels of the past, or at least highly-contested campaigns of the past.
In my view, that’s a very good thing: Campaigns perform an important function in democracies by educating voters and constraining the winning candidates. Certainly, anyone who wants high voter turnout should also want high campaign spending. But even if you don’t like money being spent on campaigns, it’s important to place spending in context in order to judge just how much we’re talking about. And by that measure, we’re probably nowhere close to setting records.