Spending the Big Bucks: Presidential Candidate Campaign Budgets
Becoming President of the United States is obscenely expensive. This may strike some of us as strange, considering the tales we tell ourselves about being a “representative democracy” with “populism” at the core of who we are. Anybody with great ideas, a history of leadership, and a decent personality should be able to attain this high office, right?
For better and for worse, the answer is No. We find ourselves now in the middle of Presidential Primary Season — a time in which bottomless pocketbooks, rather than meaningful legislative track records, sway the course of elections.
So exactly how much money are the candidates spending this year? And more importantly, where the heck do they get it? Read on for the answers to these questions and more.
Who’s Winning the Money Race?
There are two Presidential races in America: the one to capture the most votes, and the one to capture the most donors. The winners of these two races are very often the same, but not always.
On October 15th of last year, candidates were required to file campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Committee. The purpose of this is to give the American people a clear understanding of how much money their candidates are raising, and where it comes from. Unfortunately, thanks to the rise of SuperPACs (Political Action Committees), which were emboldened by the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, the full story behind campaign finance is a bit of a mystery. Thanks to SuperPACs, corporations and billionaires can funnel unlimited sums of money into presidential campaigns at will, brazenly avoiding the personal donation cap of $2,700. But that’s an article for another day.
So who’s winning the money race at this point? It’s actually a fabulously interesting question, for multiple reasons. Below are the grand totals, as of October 15th:
- Hillary Clinton (D): $29.9 million
- Bernie Sanders (D): $26.2 million
- Ben Carson (R): $20.8 million
- Jeb Bush (R): $13.4 million
- Ted Cruz (R): $12.2 million
If you’re wondering where The Donald ranks, he weighs in at $3.9 million, for a tenth place finish. Being a billionaire himself, Trump has declared that he will be self-financing his campaign. Whether he sticks to that commitment for the duration is anybody’s guess.
So: Now that we have a better understanding of how much money is in play, the next question to answer is just where the heck it all comes from.
Where Do These Donations Come From?
Because former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders are in first and second place, respectively, it makes sense to start with them. Much has been made of these candidates’ campaign contributions in recent months, and for good reason: Where they get their money is a fairly clear indication of who they’ll answer to once they’re President.
Hillary Clinton has caught some much-deserved flak for being a Wall Street shill, and the facts will back this up. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists over at PolitiFact have confirmed that Clinton’s top campaign donors are big banks, corporations, and media conglomerates.
Senator Sanders, meanwhile, has received virtually all of his donations from labor unions and individual donations. To date, Sanders has received more individual contributions than any candidate in United States history. Think about that for just a second, and weigh it against the corporate media’s assertion that he’s “unelectable.” It’s also worth mentioning that Sanders is quite literally the only Presidential candidate who doesn’t have a SuperPAC.
The bottom line is this: When Clinton and Sanders both claim that they’ll be “tough on Wall Street,” it stands to reason that we should believe the candidate that doesn’t receive millions of dollars at a time from the same financial institutions they claim they’ll “reign in.” If there’s ever been a clear-cut example of a political conflict of interest, this is it.
Now: Let’s take a look at their opposition.
It’s not at all a secret that the Koch Brothers — who rank among the richest people in the world, are funneling unimaginable amounts of money into the Republican presidential campaigns. But just how much?
It depends, for a start, on what you mean by Koch “Brothers.” Bernie Sanders has asserted that the “Koch family” will outspend both the Democratic and Republican National Committees on the 2016 election, and PolitiFact rates this as false — but only if you take the word “family” literally. Although Charles and David Koch are not solely responsible for donating this projected total of $750–900 million, Koch Industries is a vast multinational, multi-industry juggernaut. That this money is coming from Koch-owned properties, if not from the brothers themselves, is effectively beyond dispute.
But the Koch Brothers are hardly alone in having a vested interest in funding the 2016 race. NPR has a fantastic series of graphics that show which candidates receive the most money from millionaires and billionaires. Leading the pack is Ted Cruz, with 71% of his donations coming from folks in the $1 million+ income bracket. Marco Rubio comes in at second, with 51%.
What Else Could This Money Be Used For?
Part of the reason why elections in the United States are so amazingly expensive is because we insist on private funding. In better-governed countries like Norway, where elections are publically funded, the system is taken much more seriously as an actual engine of Democracy. And their parties are considerably less reliant on wealthy donors with personal agendas.
So to close out our discussion on campaign finances, it’s worth our time to look at just what we could be doing with all this money instead. What kind of difference could we make in the lives of our citizens if we put this money to better use?
Because the Presidential race will be determined in part by ad buys, let’s use this as a benchmark. Current estimates for ad spending in the 2016 election is pegged at $6 billion. So here’s some much-needed context:
- NASA’s Science Office costs $5.589 billion per year
- USDA’s Research Division costs $1.544 per year
- NOAA’s Oceanic/Atmospheric research division costs $482 million per year
I’m focusing on science because inquiry into the natural world is one of the most worthwhile things a country can do with its money. So let’s get personal. If we had universal healthcare in this country, the annual cost per year for a family of four would be just $466. The $6 billion we spend on political ads could put a nice dent in that.
This Presidential election is going to help determine the United States’ financial priorities for decades to come. Given what we’ve just learned, let’s hope whoever ends up in the Oval Office makes campaign finance reform a major priority.
Holly Whitman is a political writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. Want these posts delivered straight to your inbox every week? Sign up to the weekly newsletter.