The 2020 campaign is on track to cost nearly $11 billion, obliterating past election races, a new report says

  • Federal-level political committees have already spent $7.2 billion in the 2020 cycle — more than in any other presidential election, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates.
  • The spending increase is driven by several factors, including a highly polarized and motivated electorate. It's also easier than ever to make impulse campaign contributions online.
  • Women are donating more money to federal political candidates and committees than ever before.
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No matter the pandemic. No matter the recession.

Election 2020 will cost nearly $11 billion at the federal level, obliterating previous marks for presidential election cycles, a new report from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics predicts.

That's almost double what federal political committees and candidates spent — $6.5 billion — in 2016. The 2012 election, at $6.3 billion, cost about the same. 

Even if federal committees didn't spend another dollar from this point on, the 2020 election "would still be the most expensive ever," the report states. 

The total 2020 price tag for the presidential and congressional elections to date: $7.2 billion. So far, Democratic committees are together outspending their Republican counterparts.

Several factors contribute to this dramatic spending increase, including generous super PAC megadonors, empowered small-dollar donors, and an electorate that's both polarized and energized — and evermore willing to put money behind their activism. 

"Donors across the political spectrum are motivated enough right now that they've more than stepped up, and small donors are an increasingly significant portion of the donor pool," said Sarah Bryner, the Center for Responsive Politics' research director. 

The campaigns of both Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump have pushed their fundraising efforts into overdrive during Election 2020.Jim Watson and Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

Easier than ever to give

The evolution of Democratic online fundraising platform ActBlue and the creation last year of its Republican analog, WinRed, have made it easier than ever for Americans to contribute — sometimes repeatedly — to political campaigns and causes. 

Since the platforms let prospective donors save their credit card information, a liberal outraged by President Donald Trump's latest tweet might hate-donate $50 to Democratic nominee Joe Biden's campaign with one click of their mouse. 

Likewise, a conservative aghast at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's latest legislative gambit might impulsively contribute $100 to the National Republican Congressional Committee as simply as he'd buy kitchen supplies on his iPhone through Amazon Prime.

One-click online political contributions and the proliferation of multi-committee "joint fundraising committees" have helped to nationalize many US Senate and House campaigns. Live in Alaska but want to help defeat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky? It'll take an ActBlue user about 20 seconds to contribute money to his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath.

Small-dollar donors — people giving $200 or less — account for 22 percent of all federal political committees' fundraising for Election 2020. During the 2016 cycle, small-dollar donors accounted for 14 percent of overall fundraising, the Center for Responsive Politics said.

Women are notably contributing at historically high levels, having already donated almost $1.7 billion to federal-level political causes during the 2020 campaign, the Center for Responsive Politics' report notes. More than 4 in 10 political donors this election cycle are women — the highest participation rate in history, the report states.

Some of that is attributable to campaigns incessantly poking, prodding, and begging supporters via email and text message to give them more campaign cash. They often use textbook persuasion techniques, ranging from breathless "we aren't meeting our goal!" pleas to rigged meet-the-candidate raffles, where the campaign ultimately picks whomever it wants. 

A favorite gimmick of both Democrats and Republicans — their advertising of "triple match" or "800% match" of someone's donation — is a straight-up lie, albeit a particularly compelling one.

Consider, too, that Trump filed to run for reelection on the very day of his January 2017 inauguration, igniting what's been an unprecedentedly long 2020 presidential campaign. 

Along the way, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg pumped about $1 billion of his own money into an effort that flamed out within 100 days of the former New York mayor and media mogul's campaign launch.

Changing spending patterns

If the COVID-19 pandemic has changed one thing, it's how campaigns spend their money. The Trump and Biden campaigns have spent less on travel and events compared to the 2016 election, but shoveled more campaign cash into various media, especially online ads.

The Center for Responsive Politics' Election 2020 spending estimate, which does not include state- or local-level political races, is a cautious one. 

Its report acknowledges that late influxes of campaign cash — prompted by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the upcoming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and the  remaining presidential and vice presidential debates — could drive the ultimate cost of Election 2020 even higher. 

Beyond 2020, "the unanswered question is whether this will be the new normal for future elections," Center for Responsive Politics Executive Director Sheila Krumholz said.

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