The cost of this year’s federal elections will hit close to $14 billion, shattering records and doubling the amount of money spent to influence presidential and congressional contests four years ago, according to an estimate released Wednesday.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, previously estimated that 2020 federal election spending would hit nearly $11 billion. But a surge of last-minute money – driven by the battle over the nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court and a fresh influx of funds into the presidential campaign and hotly contested Senate races – pushed spending to highs not seen before in American politics, the group’s researchers say.
Among the trends: Small-dollar donations are soaring. Billionaires have opened their wallets. And donors are crossing state lines with their giving, driving big money into marquee races, such as the battle in South Carolina between Republican three-term Sen. Lindsey Graham and his Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.
And the 2020 election also has seen a dramatic reversal in the financial fortunes of the two men vying for the White House.
Democrat Joe Biden, who initially struggled to raise money amid a crowded field of vying for his party’s nomination, now is poised to become the first presidential candidate to raise $1 billion from donors, excluding donations that landed in the Democratic Party’s coffers that also benefited Biden’s campaign.
Donations to the Biden campaign alone through mid-October – the most recent public filings – already have topped $930 million. By comparison, President Donald Trump, who began running for reelection almost as soon as he took the oath of office, has raised more than half a billion dollars during the two-year cycle – not counting funds directed to the Republican National Committee or those raised before 2019.
“Ten years ago, a billion-dollar presidential candidate would have been difficult to imagine. This cycle, we’re likely to see two,” the center’s executive director Sheila Krumholz said in a statement.
The other billion-dollar candidate: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and plowed nearly $1.1 billion of his financial information fortune into the contest before dropping out and committing to spend heavily to aid Biden.
The estimated $14 billion price tag tops the nearly $12.8 billion spent during the 2012 and 2016 presidential election cycles combined, the Center said. And spending in the 2020 presidential race alone is expected to hit $6.6 billion, adding in all the activity by candidates, political parties and outside groups.
In the world of politics, the $14 billion election cost represents an eye-popping sum, and it exceeds the $8.05 billion that the National Retail Federation estimates Americans will spend on Halloween in a few days’ time. (But it’s still far less than $27.4 billion that the nation’s consumers spent on candy, flowers, jewelry and other gifts to mark Valentine’s Day in February.)
Other trends in political spending:
- Democrats are awash in campaign cash. Excluding the spending by two self-funding billionaire candidates – Bloomberg and California hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer – Democratic candidates and groups spent $5.5 billion in this cycle; Republicans, $3.8 billion. That marks an unprecedented financial advantage for Democrats.
- Small-dollar donors account for 22% of the money raised this cycle, up from 15% in the last presidential election cycle.
- Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his physician wife Miriam top the mega-donors’ list, contributing $183 million to candidates and groups. Most of their donations landed late, including a $75 million contribution to Preserve America, a super PAC launched in late August to help Trump confront the Democratic money onslaught.
- Senate races saw big sums. So far, the North Carolina Senate race between Republican Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham is the most expensive congressional contest ever – with about $265 million in spending by candidates and outside organizations. The Iowa contest, pitting GOP Sen. Joni Ernst against Democrat Theresa Greenfield, holds the No. 2 slot at $218 million.
- Democratic Senate challengers in states such as North Carolina, Iowa and Arizona – all crucial to their party’s hopes of seizing the chamber from Republicans after next week’s election – saw the majority of money to their campaigns coming from outside their states. In addition, in the closely watched race in South Carolina, out-of-state money accounted for 93% of Harrison’s money and about 87% of the campaign funds collected by Graham.
- Women donors have stepped up their giving, accounting for 44% of contributions, a new high. And women donors have donated $1.3 billion to Democrats, compared to roughly $570 million to Republicans.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect the combined spending in the 2012 and 2016 presidential cycles. It was nearly $12.8 billion.