As dark money runs rampant in Washington and wealthy donors enjoy limitless opportunities to influence national politics with their bank accounts, it’s no wonder each election cycle becomes more expensive than the last. But something unusual is happening in 2020.
“This will be an election like no other,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a leading research group tracking money in politics. “We are soon going to be completely enveloped by political advertising online, on our computers, our TVs, even our mailboxes … this is fundraising on steroids.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign announced on Wednesday that it raised $364.5 million in August, a record-breaking haul that was the result of a joint fundraising effort launched with the Democratic National Committee.
When the Supreme Court overturned election spending restrictions with its 2010 ruling in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, it began an era of virtually unlimited political spending by corporations and unions. The decision ultimately caused elections to become increasingly expensive over time, with each cycle consistently breaking fundraising records — in large part thanks to mega donors bankrolling Super PACs through untraceable dollars.
However, the Biden campaign said it raised over 50 per cent of its record one-month haul through small-dollar donations online, with some of that money coming from more than 1.5 million Americans who contributed for the first time in August. While Super PACs and dark money networks continue to ramp up fundraising efforts ahead of the November election, experts have noticed an unprecedented surge of enthusiasm among voters from a wide variety of demographics which appears to be fuelling the former vice president’s campaign.
Mr Biden said he was “blown away” and “humbled” by the August fundraising figures in a statement, adding: “Even in a global recession, working families set aside some money to power this campaign, and a little bit added up in a big way.”
His campaign quickly followed up with an announcement that it was “continuing to ramp up its general election paid media spending, investing $45 million on broadcast and digital this week alone”.
The Biden campaign’s fundraising haul in August leapt past its July figures, in which it raised $140 million — about $15 million short of what President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign raised that same month. The Trump campaign has not released its August figures.
Former President Barack Obama previously held the record for a one-month fundraising haul when he raised a reported $200 million in 2008.
The former vice president may certainly enjoy advantages that Mr Obama did not in 2008, including a different landscape that allows donors to essentially contribute to countless fundraising arms. Still, Ms Krumholz said the Biden campaign’s strategy of casting a wide tent and attempting to attract liberal and centrist voters alike may be aiding his fundraising efforts: while his supporters may disagree on specific policy issues, she said they are united with a common goal of unseating the Republican incumbent who has suffered from historic disapproval ratings throughout his tenure in the Oval Office.
Mr Biden “is trying to appeal very broadly to the left of the left and all the way to the right, to try and capture all of the people who have grown dismayed with Trump’s performance or antics,” she said. “I think he has his work cut out for him, but this fundraising news is definitely unusual … and a good sign for nervous Democrats.”
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the 2020 election will undoubtedly become the most expensive in US history — not just because of the presidential race, but also due to highly-watched state races that stand to transform power on Capitol Hill. In Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing Democratic hopeful Amy McGrath, the senatorial race is on track to be the most expensive Senate race ever with over $84 million raised in total.
Aside from campaign fundraising, the election was also likely set to become one of the most expensive in history due to outside investments in voting infrastructure and the integrity of the US electoral process. The Centre for Responsive Politics does not track donations to voting rights groups and electoral safeguarding initiatives, though Ms Krumholz said she and her team have seen a spike in those type of contributions from wealthy figures, most notably the recent donation of $300 million by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to the Centre for Tech and Civic Life, as well as the Centre for Election and Innovation Research.
“The money for the campaigns will be record-breaking … So will the money spent to safeguard the election,” she said. “How this money will be used — and how effective will it be — is the question.”