With just one day remaining in the 2016 election cycle, it’s now possible to tally up the last two years of campaign spending reports and get a near-final look at what the Clinton and Trump campaigns have spent. The chart below shows their totals, in comparison to presidential candidates from past elections.
The super PAC spending numbers shown here include only single-candidate super PACs, those that explicitly support a specific candidate. Not included are spending by unaffiliated super PACs and other independent expenditures for or against the general election candidates (often on behalf of a primary election opponent from the same party).
In early 2015, this election had all the makings of a record shattering spending race. The field included Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton and a host of other candidates with a proven track record of fundraising. Fresh off the 2012 Citizens United decision, the prospect of unlimited spending by super PACs loomed large (the Koch brothers alone intended to spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 campaign). And the historical trend was pointing in one direction. In each of the last four presidential elections, the two general election candidates spent significantly more than in the election before.
Surprisingly (or maybe not surprising at all considering both candidates’ record-low approval ratings), Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spent substantially less than Obama and Romney did in 2012.
Historical spending, normalized to 2016
To make the comparison to prior years apples-to-apples, it’s not enough to account for inflation only. Not only has the value of a dollar changed over time, but the population has grown (more potential donors) and so has the average household income (more money to donate).
When you adjust for all three factors — inflation, population growth and income growth — here is how the numbers shake out (exact calculation described further down).
By this measure, spending in this election was a big drop-off from the recent upward trend. But in historical terms, 2016 looks pretty average.
It will be interesting to look back a few elections from now and see how 2016 looks in hindsight. Will 2016 turn out to be a blip in an otherwise ever-increasing trend of campaign spending? Or were 2008 and 2012 the aberration, and is 2016 just a return to long-term normality?
Another obvious takeaway is the connection between the amount of money spent and who wins the election. Not since Ford lost to Carter in 1976 has the candidate who spent the most money lost. If past trends are indicative of future performance, Clinton would have the edge. So far in this election, past trends have meant very little. We’ll see very soon whether this one holds up.
- Historical campaign spending data is from the Federal Election Committee, New York Magazine and OpenSecrets.org. For 2016 figures, official campaign spending is as of 19-Oct-2016 and super PAC spending is as of 4-Nov-2016. The numbers shown do not include spending by political parties or independent expenditures other than single-candidate super PACs. Download the data used in this post.
- To normalize the spending numbers to 2016, I adjusted for inflation (GDP deflator), population growth, and income growth (real GDP per capita). When you multiply them together, the result is just nominal GDP. So formula I used is:
2016 normalized spend = (year X nominal spend) • (2016 nominal GDP) / (year X nominal GDP)
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