Political Spending In The 2020 Election Totaled $14.4 Billion, More Than Doubling The Total Cost Of The Record-Breaking 2016 Presidential Election Cycle.
Published February 12, 2021
The Center for Responsive Politics [Karl Evers-Hillstrom]-
According to OpenSecrets’ analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, Political spending in the 2020 election totaled $14.4 billion, more than doubling the total cost of the record-breaking 2016 presidential election cycle. OpenSecrets previously estimated that the 2020 election would cost around $14 billion. The extraordinary spending figure makes the 2020 election the most expensive of all time by a large margin.
The pricey presidential showdown between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was funded by an unprecedented number of small donors giving online and billionaires who wielded tremendous political influence over the last decade. Donors also fueled record spending in congressional races, capping off the 2020 election with the all-time most expensive Georgia Senate runoffs.
The hotly contested presidential election — both sides called it the most important race in history — was the catalyst for an influx of donations. Biden’s campaign became the first to raise over $1 billion from donors. Biden’s cash advantage over Trump helped him pepper swing states with far more campaign ads. Biden also received more help from super PACs and “dark money” groups.
Trump’s campaign raised $774 million. Trump raised over half of his money from small donors giving $200 or less, a stunning figure no other presidential candidate has matched. Trump continued raising money long after news outlets called the race for Biden, racking up campaign cash he could use to influence the future of the GOP.
While the presidential election drew a record $5.7 billion, congressional races saw a stunning $8.7 billion in total spending.
Nine of the 10 most expensive Senate races ever occurred in the 2020 cycle. Five of the 10 most expensive House races happened in 2020. The rise in congressional spending started in the 2018 cycle, which smashed midterm spending records. All of the 10 most expensive House and Senate contests took place in one of the last two election cycles.
Democrats secured a razor thin majority in the Senate with two wins in the Georgia Senate runoffs. The race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue saw an unbelievable $510 million in total spending. The candidates spent $244 million and outside spending hit $266 million. Before the 2018 cycle, no Senate race had surpassed $200 million in total spending. The first $100 million race didn’t take place until 2014.
Democrats didn’t expect to win the Senate in January. They’d hoped to take back the majority in November, riding strong poll numbers and a massive financial advantage. In Senate races, Democratic general election candidates raised over $1.1 billion, easily dwarfing Republicans’ $752 million. In House races, Democrats outraised Republicans $898 million to $763 million. Still, Republicans netted 11 seats in November.
Small donors helped drive the Democratic fundraising machine. Democratic candidates raised $1.8 billion from donors giving $200 or less, an unprecedented figure. The small donor boost was most evident with Democratic Senate candidates. In 2016, these candidates got 14 percent of their campaign cash from small donors. That figure reached nearly 37 percent in 2020.
While Republicans raised significantly less from small donors, totaling $1.1 billion, the party made huge gains with grassroots donors. The change is most evident with House GOP candidates, who increased their small donor rate from less than 6 percent in 2016 to 22 percent in 2020.
Some of Trump’s top allies such as Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) rank among the lawmakers bringing in the highest percentage of funds from small donors. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) appears primed to join them.
Most Americans don’t make significant political contributions, but OpenSecrets data reveals a massive uptick in political participation. In the 2020 cycle, nearly 1.8 percent of the U.S. adult population donated more than $200 to a political committee. That figure sat at nearly 0.7 percent in the 2016 cycle and roughly 0.5 percent in the 2012 cycle.
Donors who had been on the sidelines in previous elections — particularly women — jumped into the fray in 2020. Women accounted for 45 percent of donations of $200 or more and 35 percent of total fundraising. That’s up from 37 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in 2016.
Overall, small donors accounted for 23 percent of total fundraising in the 2020 cycle, up from 15 percent in 2016. Political campaigns spent big on online ads to build their lists of supporters then sent out flurries of fundraising emails and text messages urgently asking for campaign cash.
With the increased influence of individual donors, traditional PACs such as corporate PACs and leadership PACs are becoming less of a force in political fundraising. The percentage of fundraising from PACs fell to 4 percent from 9 percent in the previous presidential election cycle.
Business interests use PAC donations to gain access to lawmakers, but that buying power isn’t what it used to be. While individual contribution limits increase each cycle to keep up with inflation, the $5,000 yearly limit for PACs has remained unchanged for decades.
Dozens of Democrats have been able to join the recent trend of rejecting corporate PAC donations altogether. Amid fallout from the Jan. 6 riots, large numbers of corporations announced they’d cut off their PAC contributions to members who voted against certifying the results of the presidential election, but the impact of these pledges may be limited.
PACs are only one tool business interests employ. Wealthy executives and business moguls make significantly larger contributions. The top 100 donors gave $1.6 billion to political committees in 2020, accounting for 9 percent of total fundraising.
Billionaire donors funneled their cash to super PACs and hybrid PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money. Outside spending totaled nearly $3.3 billion in 2020, nearly doubling the high-water mark set in 2016.
The top super PACs blew away previous spending records. The Senate Leadership Fund, aligned with GOP leader Mitch McConnell, spent nearly $294 million. The Senate Majority PAC, led by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, was right behind with $230 million in spending. Prior to the 2020 election, no group had spent $200 million in a single cycle.
Super PACs are supposed to be independent of candidates and lawmakers, but weak enforcement of coordination rules has emboldened party leaders to use them as an unlimited spending arm of the party. That trend has extended to presidential candidates too. Trump held a fundraiser for pro-Trump super PAC America First Action while Biden subtlety directed donors to his preferred outside group.
Outside groups are also taking advantage of loopholes in disclosure rules. Each of the top 7 super PACs were partially funded by dark money. Pro-Biden groups like Future Forward USA and Priorities USA Action were bankrolled by nonprofit affiliates that share the same name and staffers. Instead of directly spending money on ads, dark money groups are increasingly finding new ways to inject secret money into elections.
Researcher Doug Weber contributed to this report.