Steven Dennis is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. He is a long-time political reporter, savvy in his political analysis, not overtly partisan, and the host of the all-important #FridayNightZillow. However, recently, I noticed him exclaiming that he was “surprised at how *little* money is spent on politics.” His comment left me taken aback. Billions of dollars are spent on political campaigns each year; the 2020 election cycle alone set numerous highs for campaign spending.
Corporations, Political Action Committees (PACs) and super PACs funnel money into elections without stopping. I constantly hear in the media, especially media on the left, about the jaw-dropping sums of dark money thrown at campaigns. My first instinct when pressed on money in politics certainly wouldn’t have been to argue that not all that much money is spent in the political realm.
Most Americans feel the same way. Polling has shown that over 80% of Americans feel that money has too much of an influence on politics, and close to that same number feel that there should be limits on campaign spending. When I spoke with a few students on campus, those same sentiments came up again and again.
Evan Jaeger, Kinesiology senior, shared, “I definitely feel like there is too much money in politics,” and that he believed, “if all of the extra money was removed from politics, it would make it easier for politicians to do their job and there would be a lot less conflict between the political parties.”
LSA senior Luke Lapointe told me, “I do think there is a lot of money and too much money in politics. If less money was involved, I think their actions could be focused more on the benefit of citizens rather (than) their own pockets.”
There is no doubt that campaign finance issues plague the American political system. Citizens United v. FEC was a terrible decision that, among other things, made dark money evermore present in American politics by severely restricting congress’s authority to regulate campaign contributions. The Supreme Court majority declared, erroneously, that campaign donations amounted to exercises of free speech. Campaigns are required to disclose depressingly little about their financing, and the few regulations that are in place often go unenforced. Campaigns and candidates seem to constantly misuse funds, and the system is ripe for fraud. But none of that changes a simple fact, one that I hadn’t realized until recently.
Compared to the fiscal consequences of winning and losing elections, the amount of money spent on campaigns is minuscule.
Take, for example, the two 2020 Georgia Senate elections. The two races saw a combined spending of close to a billion dollars, setting records as the most expensive congressional campaigns ever.
Now think about how different federal spending would have been had Republicans won either of the seats, keeping the Senate in their control. Trillions of dollars in recent government spending would likely have either not taken place at all or been directed elsewhere.
Legislation like the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act, for example, never would have seen the light of day. The ARP alone came at a price tag of $1.9 trillion. All of a sudden, a little shy of a billion dollars seems paltry. As does the entire combined spending on the 2020 elections, more than $14 billion.
Perhaps that is one of the more extreme cases. So let’s take the 2018 midterms as a whole. Combined, just $5.7 billion was spent. And that was the most expensive midterm of all time. This sum is completely dwarfed by the consequences of that race, as is the sum every two years when House and Senate control is decided, and with it, the future of trillions in federal spending.
When one thinks about this type of return on investment, it is actually quite shocking there isn’t more individual and PAC spending. When GOP tax breaks can mean hundreds of millions — even billions — of dollars of saved money for corporations, for example, it seems like a no-brainer for company CEOs and leaders to donate tens of millions to ensure their victory. Take an example from Dennis himself. In 2018, Sheldon Adelson, a known contributor to GOP causes, donated $30 million meant to help Republican house causes. Adelson’s company netted a $670 million windfall in just one quarter as a direct result of the infamous 2017 Republican tax law, made possible in part by the Republican-controlled House he helped elect.
Admittedly, it is true that money eventually experiences diminishing returns. You could theoretically spend billions of dollars on a Senate race in, say, deep blue California, and it — in all likelihood — would not tip the scale the other way. You eventually max out on the number of voters who can be swayed by money. But often, and currently, this isn’t where the surprise lies. It’s in major competitive races at the local and state level, where candidates can’t even afford to stay on the air, that additional money would make all the difference.
Take for example Republican Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, who was left completely dark on the airwaves in June and July of 2022 as a result of lack of funding. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, ran almost 8,000 ads during that time.
Moreover, history leaves no doubt that having more money in a race can be a determinative in winning crucial races, and all races at that. In fact, since 2000, House candidates who raise more money than their general election opponent have won just under 91% of races, with Senate candidates who raise more winning over 81% of races.
With numbers like these, campaign contributions may very well have the best return on investment for companies and other political interest groups. Just 535 members of Congress, in conjunction with the president, dictated nearly $7 trillion in government spending in 2021. That’s almost exactly what the three richest companies in the country are worth combined. When you consider how such a small handful of individuals have total control over such gross amounts of money, one logically should start to ask why even more isn’t being spent.
These factors go beyond federal races as well. In fact, the question may be even more profound when you consider things at the state level, where much less money is invested and political interest is lower. In 2018, contributions to Texas candidates and PACs totaled $493.4 million. The estimated Texas state budget for the two years following? $216.8 billion. That equates to a ratio of less than one-fourth of one percent when comparing campaign spending to the amount of taxpayer money projected to be spent. Not bad odds, if you ask me.
So what does this all mean? First, we are fortunate. Fortunate that dark money and backroom lobbying aren’t even more prevalent than they are. Second, it means that for those of us concerned about the state of campaign finance, things are only going to get worse. Without more regulation and stringent enforcement, this upward trend in troublesome spending will only continue, as has been the case since the Citizens United decision.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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