It’s been a record election cycle for many reasons — including the fact that it’s the most expensive, bar none. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group that tracks money in politics, almost $14 billion was spent on the 2020 races, with about $6.6 billion going towards the presidential campaigns alone. In 2008, the total spent on all federal elections was around $5.3 billion.
Here are some more quick comparisons: Democrats raised a lot more money than Republicans. Senate races are more expensive than House races. In 1990, an average Senate campaign spent $3.87 million. In 2018, it was $15.75 million. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign raised almost $1 billion as of October, while Donald Trump’s raised almost $600 million.
“Typically, the better-funded candidate is victorious,” says Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics. Senate races tend to show a little more “variance,” Bryner says, but “in your typical House race, you spend more money, you win.”
Even so, we need to be careful about how we connect elections and money. “I don’t think anyone would make the claim that that’s a causal effect,” Bryner says. “Money goes to candidates who people see as likely victors.” It’s something we hear a lot when looking at data: correlation doesn’t equal causation. A district’s strong partisan lean (which can be shaped by voter suppression and gerrymandering) might favor a certain outcome that in turn attracts more funding. Ahead, we looked into the money behind some of the key Congressional races of 2020.
Currently, the Senate is composed of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two Independents. This year, there were 35 Senate seats up for election. On average, challengers who defeated incumbents in 2020 spent around $8,255,462 more than their opponents.
Most expensive race – South Carolina
The South Carolina race between Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison is the most expensive Senate race in history. Harrison raised an astounding $107,568,737 while Graham raised $72,690,495 — but it wasn’t enough to overturn a Republican stronghold where Black voters, in particular, have long been targets of voter suppression.
The correlation between money and likelihood of winning is also affected by who is donating and why they’re motivated to do so. About 53.6% of Harrison’s campaign funds (over $57 million) came from individual small donors, meaning people who donated $200 or less. “When you’re doing [small donations], you’re not necessarily doing it because you think that your $25 donation is going to tip the balance,” says Bryner. “It’s a case of people wanting to get their voice heard and wanting to do what they can.”
After the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginbsurg on September 18th, fears of a conservative justice filling her seat led to a surge of donations. Within a day of Ginsburg’s death, over $71 million had been raised for Democratic campaigns. It was an expression of enthusiasm and frustration — not a bet on the likeliest winners, not a …read more