In the minds of most people who follow American politics, the most expensive presidential election to ever take place occurred in 2012 between Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
But if we were to measure presidential spending as a share of GDP, then the most expensive race would have actually occurred in 1896 between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William McKinley. This race, which is regarded as one of the most dramatic and complex in U.S. political history, also serves as an example of what can happen to a candidate who gets on the wrong side of the business community.
Bryan advocated on behalf of a bimetallic money standard, and McKinley used the groundswell that formed around this unconventional approach to economics to capture support for himself. According to Matthew O’Brien of The Atlantic, there was “remarkably more campaign spending in 1896 than in the next four priciest elections combined.”
I point out this bit of history to underscore just how long our country has struggled with corporate influence in politics, and to also show just how long overdue our country is for a conversation about campaign finance reform.
The latest major effort to bring transparency and smart regulation to our electoral environment was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (McCain-Feingold), but any good that law was ever going to do was summarily squashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling in 2010.
Now, thanks to Citizens United, millions of untraceable dollars have flooded our campaign landscape and a scenario has been created where candidates who would be open to fighting back against the Citizens United ruling cannot actually run a viable race without taking advantage of some provision attached to the Supreme Court’s decision. Therefore, those who rail against the ruling while benefitting from untraceable dollars open themselves up to being called hypocrites.
I call it an all-around tragedy.
Historical trivia aside, the 2012 presidential elections were record-setting, as each candidate’s respective parties’ National Committee and super PACs spent over $1 billion on their behalf, making the race the first to top $2 billion in overall spending. Those living in swing states were the first to feel the effects of this money, as over $900 million was mostly spent on what seemed to be an ongoing loop of television ads.
The various laws, rules, and regulations that make up the campaign finance terrain in our nation can be quite complex, but there are three main avenues by which it can be regulated in each state: disclosure, public financing, and contribution limits.
While states can adopt all three, there are some that rely upon only one. Whether it’s one or three, I question how effective these means are in light of the knowledge that federal election law doesn’t require groups to report the monies they raise from mid-October to Election Day until late November.
Mitt Romney’s most recent campaign is a great example of this. Two of his supporting super PACs received a $33 million gift during the final weeks of his run for office. Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama PAC, raised 20% of its overall funds during the same time.
The new presidential campaign cycle we are entering is certain to be our most expensive yet, and this is not a point of pride. If anything, such exorbitant spending will be a reflection of just how far politics has gotten away from the people.
For those interested in gaining a better understanding of the experience that lies ahead of us due to our campaign finance laws, I would recommend taking a look at the analysis written by Brent Ferguson, Counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, at the New York University School of Law called “Candidates & Super PACs: The New Model in 2016.”
He discusses how candidates are using super PACs and other groups in our current election cycle and what can be done in the future to strengthen our laws. You can find his work here.