Total cost of 2016 election could reach $6.6 billion, CRP predicts

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Is 2016 the Year of the Billionaire when it comes to financing the election?

There are plenty in the mix. And they’ve helped fuel what is turning out to be the most expensive election ever. The Center for Responsive Politics projects that candidates, parties and outside groups could spend nearly $6.6 billion by the time it’s all over, $86.5 million more than the last presidential cycle when adjusted for inflation. The cost could be much higher — this is a conservative estimate.

totalcostofelection1Where are the biggest spikes in spending compared to four years ago? Outside money groups that purportedly work independently from candidates overwhelmingly poured larger sums into the races for Congress and the executive office. The groups have spent $93.7 million more than at this point in 2012. House races accounted for the biggest jump in outside spending, percentage-wise; outlays went from $67 million at this point in 2012 to $120 million this year.

In total, outside groups have accounted for 26.8 percent of all spending so far, compared to 24 percent at the same point in 2012. They have poured in an estimated $1.3 billion, which is $190 million more than in the entire 2012 election. A majority, or 56 percent, of that spending came from Republican groups, compared to 37 percent for Democratic groups. (These figures do not include party spending.)

Historic in so many ways

Candidates and news outlets have decried the outsized influence of a small number of donors throughout the election season. Here’s a startling statistic: The top 100 families have given about 11.9 percent to the total $5.5 billion raised at this point, compared to 5.6 percent in all of 2012. Their names are familiar — Thomas and Kathryn Steyer have given $57.2 million to liberal causes, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson have doled out $47.3 million to GOP-allied forces, and Donald Sussman has so far provided $34.4 million to groups helping Democrats. Expect to see this list shift a bit: Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz pledged an additional $35 million to defeat Donald Trump earlier this month.

Top Ten Donor Families in 2016

realdonors(Note: Names are highlighted blue if a majority of money was given to Democratic groups and red for Republican groups. These totals include contributions to candidates, political parties and outside groups.)

As for the candidates themselves, presidential and Senate contender spending surged while House spending sagged. Presidential candidates spent over $1.13 billion, compared to $913 million at this point in 2012. House candidates spent $71 million less this year, and Senate candidates spent $137 million more than this point in 2012, although that number may increase when more Senate filings are processed by the FEC.

This election has brought many record-breaking moments when it comes to financing, though (and even more in a broader sense, but we’re not going there!). Some of the biggest:

  • Trump’s historic lows: The Donald was lax in filling his campaign coffers, not sending a fundraising email until mid-June 2016. In fact, he has brought in the smallest sum of any general election candidate since 2000 (when federal matching funds were still a thing) at $169.5 million as of Sept. 30. The real estate magnate also has injected his campaign with $56 million (about half of the $100 million he repeatedly vowed he’d supply); that makes up more than a quarter of the campaign’s funds. Clinton, in comparison, has brought in $445.4 million so far.
  • The Bush money train: Jeb Bush and his supporting super PAC, Right to Rise USA, showed that money isn’t everything. The group raised $121 million and held the record in amount spent by a presidential super PAC, long after Bush’s departure from the race in February; the pro-Clinton Priorities USA Action managed to take over first place just three weeks ago.
  • The rise of the small donor: The Obama re-election campaign floored campaign finance experts with his knack for tapping into the small donor pool — an impressive 32 percent of the campaign’s total funds came from people giving $200 or less in 2012. But Bernie Sanders topped that. More than half of his contributions, or 59 percent, came from small donors, totaling $134.6 million, which is about one and half times as much as Clinton and more than twice as much as Trump. (Obama still holds the record for raking in the highest dollar amount in this category, $234 million.)
  • Breaking the glass ceiling: Clinton is not only the first female major party nominee, but hers is also the first presidential campaign to raise a majority of its over-$200 contributions from female donors, or 53.8 percent, as of Sept. 30. Obama came close with 44.1 percent in 2012 and 42.2 percent in 2008. Despite Trump’s lewd and demeaning comments about women, the Republican nominee is on par with the past two GOP nominees in this area. He’s brought in 27.2 percent of his money from women, compared to Mitt Romney’s 28.3 percent four years ago and John McCain’s 28 percent in 2008.

Mystery money’s role

Dark money groups aren’t responsible for the leap in spending this cycle — at least, not judging by what they’ve reported to the FEC. At least $132 million has been spent by entities that don’t disclose their donors, compared to $232 million at this point in 2012, according to reports by these 501(c) nonprofit entities to the agency. The drop carries across both the presidential and congressional races, but is more stark in the former. In 2012, dark money groups had reported spending about $95 million in the presidential race as of Oct. 24; the total in 2016 is just half that, $48 million. Dark money spending in Senate and House races has dropped from $130 million at this point in 2012 to $83 million.

“In a campaign that has broken new ground in lots of ways, there’s at least one thing we can depend on, and that’s record-breaking spending on U.S. elections,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center’s executive director. “While this campaign saw the rise of the small donor and a fall in spending reported by groups that hidetheir donors, overall, important trends hold true: More money is still coming from a tiny set of elite donors. It’s going to super PACs that are scarcely independent of the campaigns they support. And it’s targeting competitive races where the vote will be closest and the opportunity to have an impact, greatest.”

Trump’s unpopularity in general — and among establishment Republicans in particular — has led major players like the establishment-linked Crossroads network and Koch-backed nonprofits like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners to spend their money elsewhere, particularly in tight Senate races. And much of this activity in down-ballot races was never logged with the FEC because it was framed as “issue” advocacy outside the time periods when such advocacy has to be reported.
This tactic of stealth political advertising has become the hallmark of nonprofit groups that want to spend tens of millions of dollars in elections without reporting that to the IRS. By January 2016, dark money groups had already spent more than $30 million on election-related activity, and less than a third was reported to the FEC. Groups like the Crossroads-linked One Nation on the right and Majority Forward on the left would go on to spend tens of millions, regularly avoiding filing reports with the election agency. One Nation alone has spent about $30 million in 2016, but has reported less than $3 million of that to the FEC. The trick of timing its ads before the agency’s reporting window opened on Sept. 9 could allow it to claim that its unreported spending was “educational” when it files its tax returns in November 2017.
Stealth advertising is not unique to down-ballot races, as in 2015 Marco Rubio was supported almost exclusively in the early months of the primary season by a nonprofit called Conservative Solutions Project, which spent close to $10 million on his behalf. None of that is on record at the FEC.
All in all, this unreported spending probably adds between $50 to $75 million, possibly more, to the total amount of dark money spending that has been reported.

Where the rest of the money comes from

When looking at categories of donors to the nominees through September, retired individuals top both candidates’ lists by a lot ($57 million for Clinton, $18 million for Trump). From there the two diverge, with Clinton receiving the next-highest amount from lawyers and law firms at $31 million so far, and $17.3 million from those employed in the field of education. (Obama had the same top three.) Trump received $2.1 million from his cohorts in real estate and $2 million from miscellaneous business interests (a category that includes companies that deal with consumer retail goods, restaurants, manufacturing and more). Romney‘s list was similar to Trump’s, but with Wall Street in the place of business interests.

Wall Street makes Clinton’s top industry if outside groups are taken into account: Securities and investment interests are her No. 1 funders, with $64.9 million given to her campaign committee and supporting super PACs so far, though the industry was behind only 11 percent of the cash raised directly by her campaign.

The Clinton campaign’s top donors by organization (including employees and PACs) look similar to Obama’s in 2012, with the University of California ($1.2 million), Alphabet Inc ($1.1 million) and EMILY’s List ($700,000) leading the way. Obama had the most support from the University of California and Google (now Alphabet Inc), with Microsoft swapped in instead of EMILY’s List.

Trump, on the other hand, is most popular with Murray Energy ($103,000), Alliance Resource Partners ($66,000) and a branch of the federal government, the Department of Defense ($54,000, less than workers there gave to Clinton, Sanders or Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who was one of the last GOP contenders standing besides Trump). Romney raked in money in 2012 from those who manage it, the most from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley.

Looking at the candidates’ outside group backing changes the universe of their donors: Paloma Partners ($13.1 million), Renaissance Technologies ($12.5 million) and Pritzker Group ($11.3 million) have been pillars of pro-Clinton super PACs; most of the funds came from Donald Sussman, James Simons and JB and Mary Kathryn Pritzker at those firms, respectively. Pro-Trump forces also included Renaissance Technologies ($15.5 million, thanks mostly to Robert Mercer), along with GH Palmer Associates ($2 million from Geoffrey Palmer) and Marcus Foundation ($2 million from CEO Bernard Marcus).

Our estimates are based on comparisons between activity through Sept. 30, 2012 and total cycle activity for past campaigns. We were able to estimate this cycle’s final total based on spending that occurred in the final weeks of previous elections. We also compared October outside spending to date in 2016 to October outside spending to date from 2012.

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