Comparing Election Spending

Everyone knows that campaign spending is out of control, right?

Except it’s not. In raw numbers, of course, the amount just keeps getting bigger, but controlled for inflation, it’s exactly what you would expect, and no more expensive than it was at the turn of the century, as the graph above from Mother Jones shows.

And if you control for eligible voters (remember that women did not get the right to vote until 1920, and 18-21 year olds did not get to vote until the 1970s), Jonathan Bernstein points out that we are spending far less on elections per voter than we did early in the century.

So what’s going on? Dana Houle notes at Rooted Cosmopolitan that the election reforms of 1973 capped contributions at $1,000. Because the cap was not indexed to inflation the cap very quickly moved from being relatively generous to exceedingly tight. You can see the result – as inflation skyrocketed, the real worth of $1,000 plummeted. In 2004, the cap was reset to $2,000 (which frankly only begins to adjust for post ’73 inflation), then in 2008 it was raised to $2,300, and what you see is the amount finally catching up to historical norms after its post-Watergate reform lows.

In the course we’re putting together on Making Fair Comparisons, one of the rules we give students is to control for inflation and population wherever you can, if only to see what happens. It’s hard to figure out how to control for something more complex, but you can get per capita numbers and inflation adjusted dollars pretty easily from WolframAlpha – it takes under 10 seconds to control a couple numbers and see what happens. Yet, no one does. We’d rather throw around “Most expensive campaign ever” nonsense, because it fits our intuitions or our politics.

I’ll make one more comment – it’s often mentioned by Lessig and others how much time politicians have had to spend raising money – a disciplined candidate will spend ten or more hours a week doing direct fundraising calls and as many hours doing fundraising events. Lessig claims that congressmen will spend 30% to 70% of their time raising money, implying this is a new phenomenon – looking at these charts I wonder if the increased fundraising time is a result of the non-indexed cap. In 1973, if you wanted to raise $1 million dollars for a general election race, you’d have to get maximum donations from 200 of those names on your call list. By 2004, you’d have to get more than four times that many maximum donations. No wonder congress members that served through the seventies forward have said that the amount of calls they had to make for money has increased – inflation was pushing them to it.

Incidentally, I favor publicly funded elections, for a variety of reasons. But we should be suspicious of claims that the current spending is exponentially larger than it was in the past. And as we tell our students, we should be ruthless with commentators and pundits who don’t at least attempt to control for relevant variables.

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