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The Most Expensive Election Ever

For candidates from both parties at all levels, the money flowed like never before — but apparently not enough for the Trump campaign.

November 11, 2020

The 2020 elec­tion wasn’t just historic for its turnout — it also cost an arm and a leg. In fact, it was the most expens­ive federal elec­tion on record. Yet appar­ently the Trump campaign is in a hole.

Accord­ing to Open Secrets, the price tag for the federal elec­tion was just shy of a whop­ping $14 billion, double the previ­ous pres­id­en­tial elec­tion cycle. The spend­ing was split between $6.6 billion for the pres­id­en­tial race and $7.2 billion for the Congres­sional contests. Mean­while at the state level an addi­tional $2.5 billion was spent in state elec­tions for candid­ates and ballot meas­ures, accord­ing to Follow the Money.

Demo­crats outspent Repub­lic­ans at the federal level, with Demo­crats spend­ing $6.9 billion. This was buoyed by the spend­ing of two billion­aire candid­ates in the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial primary, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. Mean­while the Repub­lic­ans spent $3.8 billion. And in contrast to 2016 when candid­ate Trump partially self-funded, in 2020, candid­ate Trump put zero of his own dollars into his own re-elec­tion effort.

Joe Biden was a partic­u­larly success­ful fundraiser. Accord­ing to the FEC’s filings, between April 1, 2019 and Octo­ber 14, 2020 his campaign raised over $950 million. That includes a stag­ger­ing $364 million in August and another $383 million in Septem­ber. To put those figures in perspect­ive, Trump’s 2016 campaign raised $333 million for the entire campaign. Biden’s total outpaced the more than $600 million raised by Trump over four years. And this does not account for any last-minute fundrais­ing by either candid­ate between Octo­ber 15 and Elec­tion Day.

In case you were curi­ous, Kanye West’s puzz­ling run for pres­id­ent raised $11 million and spent $10 million. In the end, he only ended up on the ballot in 12 states and garnered around 60,000 votes nation­wide. That works out to roughly $151 per vote just to lose badly. By contrast, in 2016 Trump spent $5.80 per vote in 2016 and Obama spent $12.80 per vote in 2012 to win. The cost per vote for 2020 is still not final because Cali­for­nia and other states are still count­ing ballots.

The last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was an outlier. Before 2016, every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion was more expens­ive than the previ­ous one. But in 2016, it was less costly than the 2012 elec­tion. In 2016, Trump scrambled campaign finance expect­a­tions when he — the candid­ate who raised less money — won the pres­id­ency against a better financed Hillary Clin­ton. But 2020 looks more like other federal elec­tions where typic­ally the better financed candid­ate — in this case Biden — wins.

2020 was also the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amend­ment, which gave women the vote and produced a woman as the vice pres­id­ent-elect for the first time. Fittingly, contrib­ut­ing to the high fundrais­ing totals in 2020 was the polit­ical spend­ing of Amer­ican women. Accord­ing to Fortune, more women made big polit­ical dona­tions than ever before. NPR simil­arly repor­ted in Septem­ber that “this elec­tion cycle, the share of women giving money to polit­ical campaigns has already risen to 43.5% after never topping 28% in the 1990s.” And female donors favored Demo­crats in their giving in 2020.

Currently, the states are still final­iz­ing their vote counts for offi­cial certi­fic­a­tion, but Joe Biden appears to be the pres­id­ent-elect with over 270 likely Elect­oral College votes. Pres­id­ent Trump has not conceded and is trying to litig­ate the results of the elec­tion in several states in the court. Trump’s 2020 campaign is soli­cit­ing money from donors to help pay for this litig­a­tion effort, which adds to the price tag of the 2020 elec­tion. Biden is also fund rais­ing to defend his elect­oral win in court against Trump’s far flung litig­a­tions.

As eagle eyed comment­at­ors noticed, when the Trump campaign soli­cited money for its post-elec­tion litig­a­tion, the fine print noted that 50 to 60 percent of the funds would not go to the legal fights but rather to retir­ing the campaign’s debts. This is curi­ous since accord­ing to the campaign’s latest filing with the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, between Janu­ary 2017 and Octo­ber 2020 the campaign had raised $601 million and spent $565 million — which should leave the campaign in the black. But the filing also indic­ates that the campaign had $1.2 million in loans or debts. It is possible that between Octo­ber 15 and the elec­tion that the campaign blew through its cash reserves and is even more in debt that the $1.2 million listed with the FEC.

The final price tag for the 2020 elec­tion will actu­ally balloon to be even larger because the final post-elec­tion reports to the FEC are not yet due. Those reports, which are filed 30 days after the elec­tion, will show the final totals includ­ing the 11th hour scurry for cash for both pres­id­en­tial campaigns.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.