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2020 US election breaks spending record

The 2020 United States (US) election has shattered previous election spending, as almost US$11 billion has been used by the candidates, according to an early estimate from the Center for Responsive politics.

The Centre for Responsive Politics is an organisation that looks at the role of money in politics and how it is used in order to advocate for transparency in election and campaign finance in the US.

According to the organisation, candidates are spending record sums on versatile online advertising due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the presidential hopefuls have spent less on travel and events compared to the 2016 election but used more money on media campaigns.

The Center’s US$10.8 billion estimate is based on how much spending has occurred so far and how much additional spending was seen in previous cycles from this point forward.

That figure is expected to increase dramatically in mid-October when congressional candidates report their third-quarter spending figures covering July 1 through to September, 30. 

Data from the Centre shows that US$6.5 billion was spent in 2016 while in 2012, US$6.3 billion was used and only US$5.3 billion in 2008.

Briefing global journalists on US campaign finance last week via Zoom, Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics, Sheila Krumholz said 2020 will ‘without a doubt’ shatter all previous spending records.

“The last election cycle cost more than $5.7 billion, the biggest jump in midterm election spending in at least 20 years. Given the massive hauls that (incumbent Donald) Trump and (Democratic challenger Joe) Biden are bringing in today, $476 million for the Trump campaign, more than half a billion, $531 million for Biden, not to mention the sum spent by the billionaire presidential candidates, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer earlier in the Democratic primary,” she said.

“What are they spending all of these millions on? Increasingly the answer is digital advertising. Especially in a time of Covid-19, when we’re all sitting at home, online political ads are a cost-effective way to message and fundraise.”

The briefing is part of the Foreign Press Center Virtual Reporting Tour of the US elections.

Center for Responsive Politics executive director Sheila Krumholz

Krumholz said this rapid increase in money flowing into American politics was partly due to the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission in 2010 that allowed organisations that are nominally independent of the candidates to raise and spend unlimited sums from any source.

“While this ground breaking decision was based on the notion that the public can see where the money is coming from to deter from the possibility of corruption, this was not and is not true,” she said.

In each cycle since then, Krumholz noted that tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flow in from secret sources to outside groups, including highly political non-disclosing non-profits and Super Political Action Committees (PACs).

“This is what is known as dark money, because if we can’t see it, we’re left in the dark. Already this year, spending by Super PACs and other nominally independent outside groups have reported spending over a billion dollars, nearly as much as the record billion plus spent in the entire 2018 midterm election cycle, and not far behind the record of US$1.4 billion spent in 2016,” said the executive director.

Meanwhile, Krumolz said Trump’s spending of public money as the US president was ‘troubling’ as it benefitted his business.

“But to be president I mean; this is the highest echelons of power in the US. This president is really on a level quite apart from his predecessors because he has merged his own personal and financial and family interests so much with his public duties,” she said.

“And so when he travels, he travels to resorts golf courses that he owns, and the public has to foot the bill for that travel and for his security detail, and for all of the events that are held in ways that benefit him financially.”

The analyst noted this such potential for personal enrichment at the expense of public interests is “unprecedented and very troubling to many people.”

“And it, of course, is one of the messages from president Trump’s opponents. So we will see on election day or in the days following whether how much that resonates with people, how much they care.

I guess his supporters, one argument they say is, he’s a savvy businessman. Of course, he’s going to take every advantage to every opportunity and use it to his advantage, it’s human nature. But again, this kind of mixing of personal and public interests really has no counterpart or compliment in the past,” Krumholz said.

The Centre for Responsive Politics was founded 37 years ago in 1983 by two former US senators, Frank Church, a Democrat of Idaho and Hugh Scott, a Republican.

In the eighties, the organisation began to focus more on the role of money in politics as a critical reason for some of the cynicism and distrust people had of politics and politicians.

“There we formed the basic research methodology that we’re following even today,” said its executive director.

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