The Mighty Money (Almost $4 Billion) That’s Fueled the 2020 Campaign
Campaign signs for 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are displayed on a road in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, U.S. (Photographer: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)

The Mighty Money (Almost $4 Billion) That’s Fueled the 2020 Campaign


The 2020 presidential campaign might well be remembered as when the dam truly broke on money in U.S. politics. Twelve years after the first presidential election in which candidate fundraising eclipsed $1 billion, the 2020 race was approaching the $4 billion mark, thanks largely -- but not solely -- to the presence of billionaires on the ballots.

1. How much has the 2020 campaign cost so far?

Presidential candidates had raised almost $3.7 billion as of Oct. 14, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That was already 54% more than the $2.4 billion spent by candidates, party committees and so-called super-PACs during the entire 2012 contest, and more than twice the $1.5 billion raised by presidential candidates in 2016. (Including congressional campaigns, the cost of federal elections will approach $14 billion, or double the amount 4 years ago, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates.)

2. How much was spent by billionaire candidates?

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $1 billion of his own money in an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination. Another $345 million was spent by former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who also came up short in the Democratic primaries. The third billionaire is President Donald Trump. Though he was said to be discussing putting as much as $100 million into his campaign, he did not dip into his own wealth to support his re-election.

3. What happened to spending limits?

They are optional and increasingly look like relics of campaigns past. Nominees who agree to spending limits are eligible for public financing of their general election campaigns, but no major party candidate has used it since Republican John McCain took $84 million in public funds in 2008. That year, Democrat Barack Obama rejected public funding and instead raised $368 million after securing the nomination, giving him a huge financial advantage over McCain, whom he defeated.

4. Are there no limits on political money in the U.S.?

There are, but they don’t apply to candidates bankrolling their own campaigns, as Bloomberg and Steyer did. (Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.) In the 1976 case known as Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled office-seekers may spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their campaigns, the rationale being that candidates could be corrupted by other people’s money but not by their own. Limits do apply to how much individual Americans can donate directly to campaigns, political parties and the political action committees that support or oppose candidates on behalf of business, labor or ideological interests.

5. Can non-billionaires compete?

Sure. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a non-billionaire, beat Bloomberg and Steyer and several others to win the Democratic nomination. From April, when he effectively clinched the nomination, through mid-October, Biden and the DNC combined to raise $1.3 billion. The U.S. system gives wealthy Americans multiple avenues to bankroll a presidential candidate. The maximum amount an individual Biden supporter can legally give this year is $830,600, which breaks down to $2,800 each for his primary and general campaigns, $355,000 to the DNC and $10,000 to each of 47 state party committees. Also, outside groups such as super-PACs and politically oriented nonprofits are permitted to spend unlimited sums to influence elections, provided they don’t coordinate their efforts with candidates. These funds are called dark money when nonprofits give or spend money on elections without disclosing the source. Through Oct. 31, outside groups had spent $663 million in support of Biden and $333 million to back Trump, Federal Election Commission records show.

6. Is there any role left for small donors?

Actually, there is. Both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (53%) and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren (52%) got more than half their money during the Democratic primaries from donors giving $200 or less. Through Aug. 31, Trump’s re-election effort had drawn 49% of its funds that way. ActBlue, which has processed $3.3 billion in donations to federal Democratic candidates and committees since January 2019, lets donors give small amounts by swiping on a mobile phone. Republicans created WinRed.

7. Isn’t this getting a little crazy?

Some politicians, including some of the Democratic presidential candidates, have made sweeping promises about campaign-finance reform, including finding ways to roll back the Citizens United decision and reinvigorate public financing. Many have sworn off taking money from lobbyists and corporate PACs, as have many Democratic members of Congress. But the main drivers of the last congressional push for campaign finance reform are gone: McCain died in 2018, and his Democratic ally in the push, Russ Feingold, left the Senate in 2011. Even modest reform proposals, such as requiring that Facebook and Google report political spending on their sites, have languished. In 2019, the Democratic-controlled House passed a wide-ranging package of measures that included greater regulation for super-PACs and “dark money,” but it has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Any limits that do manage to get through Congress might not withstand scrutiny by the Supreme Court.

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