Political spending in presidential, congressional races projected to hit nearly $11 billion, shattering records

ByFredreka Schouten, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, October 1, 2020
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WASHINGTON -- This year's political spending to elect a president and Congress is on pace to hit nearly $11 billion, smashing all previous records, according to a new estimate by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

That far exceeds the $6.5 billion that candidates, political committees and outside groups spent to influence presidential and congressional elections four years ago.

The 2020 election "is going to absolutely crush anything we've ever seen -- or imagined -- before," Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director, said in a statement. "The unanswered question is whether this will be the new normal for future elections."

The presence of two free-spending billionaires in the Democratic presidential primary -- former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and California hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer -- along with a wave of small-dollar contributions helped drive spending to new highs.

The center's estimate of $10.8 billion in overall spending is based on trends it has studied from past elections, but its researchers say an 11th-hour gusher of campaign money could send the final total even higher. There already are signs of increased enthusiasm among Democratic donors as Election Day draws closer.

ActBlue, the online fundraising platform for liberal donors, said Monday it had raised $300 million for Democratic candidates and causes since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death on September 18.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, reported collecting nearly $10 million in a three-hour window Tuesday night as he and President Donald Trump faced off in their first debate. Biden's campaign went on to collect $21.5 million online on Wednesday -- the best fundraising day of the 2020 race, a campaign aide confirmed to CNN.

The coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession it has triggered aren't an "ideal environment for political fundraising," the center's research director Sarah Bryner noted. "But donors across the political spectrum ... have more than stepped up."

Small-dollar donors -- individuals giving $200 or less -- have accounted for 22% of all the money flowing to federal committees so far, up from 14% four years ago.

And Democrats have had a clear advantage in this election cycle. Even when spending from Steyer and Bloomberg were removed from the picture, Democrats accounted for 54% of total spending to Republicans' 39%, the researchers found.

The group expects spending in the presidential race alone to near $5.2 billion -- easily topping the previous record of $2.8 billion in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.

The predicted price tag for this year's battle to control Congress: about $5.6 billion, roughly on par with the record-setting spending in the 2018 midterm elections that saw Democratic seize control of the US House of Representatives.

Other findings:

  • Big donors also have influence. The top 100 donors have donated $756 million, or 8% of all giving. Candidate spending on their own campaigns account 18%. Bloomberg, who spent more than $1 billion of his fortune on his short-lived presidential bid, accounted for 12% of the total raised to date.
  • Women donors are opening their wallets, contributing nearly $1.7 billion this cycle -- up from $1.3 billion in 2016 when Democrat Hillary Clinton sought to become the first woman elected president.
  • The pandemic has shaped how candidates spend donors' money. Spending on travel and staging events is down, and more money is flowing to advertising.