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Research desk responds: Mo' money, mo' politics

By Dylan Matthews

MSPMatt asks:

How much do we as a country spend on elections and lobbying, respectively? is the place to go for this sort of data. They keep records of what an average winning House or Senate candidate spent from 1990 to 2008, which for our purposes I've adjusted to be in 2008 dollars, so that the comparison is fair. Here is how average spending has changed over that period:


While the Senate data is more erratic, both bodies' races are seeing overall increases in spending. The House data is somewhat obscured in the above graph; here's a closer look:


Though the increase is very gradual, House spending has more than doubled over this period. The composition of campaign funds, interestingly, has not changed much. Here is how the average campaign's take from political action committees (PACs) relative to total spending has changed since 1990:


The data jumps around, but generally the House percentage has hovered around 40-45 percent, and the Senate percentage somewhere between 15 and 25 percent. There are fewer data points for presidential campaign spending over this period, but the growth is still dramatic. Here is how total presidential campaign spending has changed since the 1992 race:


The rate is exponential, and far faster than the growth in House or Senate race spending. MSPMatt also asked about lobbying spending, which tracks as well. Here's how lobbying spending in 2009 broke down by sector:


Two things to note here. First, the numbers for the pharmaceutical and financial/insurance industries are probably higher than usual, both because of the health care battle and because financial reform began being considered in 2009. Second, two groups commonly focused upon in lobbying and interest group discussions - single-issue groups like the NRA or Sierra Club, and labor unions - spend far less than corporations do. While money is an imperfect measure of influence, the notion that public interest groups and unions can serve as a counterbalance to corporations appears to be an exaggeration, at best.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 24, 2010; 4:25 PM ET
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For clarity, the NRA, Sierra Club, and labor unions are all corporations.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 24, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

How much of this money ends up in the bank accounts of media people/companies? Probably most of it.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 24, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

For comparison, the total presidential campaign spending, even at its highest, is about half what the country spends on chewing gum. Frankly, I don't understand why it's so low.

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 24, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

I'll remember that chewing gum idea next time the rich complain about paying higher taxes.

And by the way, I doubt that I could instead invest my annual (or even my lifetime) chewing gum allocation in any election and win.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 24, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Per Capita the spending is not out of line with what happens in other countries. The Canadians spend $300 million, or $9. At $9 per capita we'd spend $2.8 Billion. Obama/McCain was half that. Add in winning House candidates (435*1.4 million is pretty close to $600 Million), and Senators (33 were up, they spent $9 each or $300 million) and you're up $2.3 Billion US.

Granted I haven't accounted for the expenditures of losing Congressional candidates, but a lot of those guys had no money to spend. Even if they spent as much as the winners we're to $3.2 Billion, which is pretty close to the $2.8 Billion Canada would be spending if they had our population.

Lots of people think there's too much money in our elections, but it's not clear that we'd spend a whole lot less if we funded our elections the way other rich democracies do. It's simply impossible to reach 300,000,000 Americans without a massive warchest.

Posted by: NickBenjamin | June 24, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

@rmgregory :For clarity, the NRA, Sierra Club, and labor unions are all corporations.

False...the Sierra club, NRA, and unions are not corporations, they are membership organizations. They are not organized as for profit entities like corporations, have different governance, no private investors, no stock holders (like public corporations), etc. This is just false...

Posted by: srw3 | June 24, 2010 8:08 PM | Report abuse

"It's simply impossible to reach 300,000,000 Americans without a massive warchest."

That doesn't explain congressional spending where the candidate only needs to reach their state or district. Sure some districts and states are expensive, but even places like Nebraska, Iowa, N. Dakota, Idaho, etc. have multimillion dollar races. They could pay each citizen hundreds of dollars instead of buying advertising in a small population state. And, BTW, we own the air waves. We could make it a requirement that the public airwaves have to carry political debates and statements from the candidates instead of having paid advertising.

Posted by: srw3 | June 24, 2010 8:14 PM | Report abuse

Even with the ever higher costs of campaigns, the total spending for presidential and congressional candidates (including primaries), national party committees, and 527 organizations came to $8.78 per eligible voter per year.

So I'll say it again: public campaign financing. Heck, we'd get a lot of that money back if it freed our representatives to allow Medicaid to bargain for prescription drugs, not to mention the other corporate welfare that could be taken out of our system.

Posted by: dasimon | June 24, 2010 11:35 PM | Report abuse

Hip hop references galore!

Posted by: ChrisFinger | June 25, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I think you mean Medicare, not Medicaid. Medicaid does bargain, and pays a lot less for prescription drugs than Medicare Part D.

Posted by: seanny53 | June 28, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

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