I would agree that spending on campaigns seems high and has struck an emotional chord with me. But put in perspective, is it that high? I can see both arguments. The money could do far more good spent in a different fashion. But so could P&G’s marketing budget; or General Motor’s advertising…
Tim Taylor once again does a superb job putting things in perspective:
Total spending for the 2014 Congressional races looks like it will come in at about $4 billion, quite similar to the amount spent in 2012 and 2010. In the context of a high-income country with a population of nearly 320 million, this is not a large amount. As I point out in my Principles of Economics textbook (which I naturally recommend for its combination of high quality and moderate price), “For example, consumers in the U.S. economy spend about $2 billion per year on toothpaste. In 2012, Procter and Gamble spent $4.8 billion on advertising, and General Motors spent $3.1 billion. Americans spend about $22 billion per year on pet food—three times as much as was spent on the 2012 election.” As another comparison, Americans spend about $8 billion each year celebrating Halloween. With the US government making decisions that involve $3.5-$4 trillion in spending and taxes, not to mention the nonmonetary effects of other laws regulatory rulings, people are going to allocate resources to try to affect those outcomes.
What about the much-discussed role of “outside money”–that is, outside the candidates and the political parties themselves? Here’s the breakdown. Candidates and parties still dominate campaign spending, although outside organizations surely play a significant role.
Open Secrets also provides a breakdown by party, and by the House and Senate. Overall, Republicans outspent the Democrats by a fair amount in the House, and by a smaller margin in Senate races. However, a glance at the table shows that the Republicans also had more candidates early in the process for the 435 House seats and 36 Senate seats (33 on the regular election, plus three that for various reasons where a Senator did not serve out the complete term had special elections). Thus, some of this total reflects R v. R and D v. D, races, rather than the general election.
Finally, what about the role of big organizations? There are a variety of ways of slicing the data on giving by organizations, but here’s a list of the biggest 20 entries in “Top Organization Contributions.” As the website explains: “Totals on this page reflect donations from employees of the organization, its PAC and in some cases its own treasury. These totals include all campaign contributions to federal candidates, parties, political action committees (including superPACs), federal 527 organizations, and Carey committees.” As the list shows, these biggest organizational donors tend to lean to the Democrats. Koch Industries, which seems to get considerable public attention, is 17th in these rankings.