Abstract of glass image of RPC building.

The cost of power in the US election

02 November 2016. Published by Charlotte Thompson, Associate

Electioneering in the US is big business.

The Center for Responsive Politics has recently predicted that candidates, parties and outside groups could spend nearly $6.6 billion by the end of campaigning. Donald Trump's expenditure has been especially interesting: whilst spending considerably less than Hillary Clinton so far, between June 2015 and September 2016 he spent $3.2 million on hats alone, exceeding his spending on polling.

These figures dwarf UK election spending: in the 2015 general election, 57 political parties and non-party campaigners spent £39 million between them.

Why are US elections so expensive?

There are many factors, including America's large population, as well as the numerous positions being fought for across the nation at election time.

Another reason is the fact that fundraising is not as strictly regulated in the US as in other countries. Indeed, some point to the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission as the reason for increased spending. The Supreme Court ruled that a previous ban on corporations making contributions to candidates in US federal elections was unconstitutional, and that corporations and workers' unions should have the freedom to spend money on political campaigns, as long as they are independent of candidates. Super political action committees (super-PACs) were born - organisations which can raise money from individuals, corporations and other groups and spend their funds in US federal elections. Despite candidates being legally unable to control super-PACs, the US's Federal Election Commission has been fairly liberal in allowing groups to work with campaigns. However, US elections were expensive before the Citizens United decision and the importance of the Supreme Court's ruling can be overstated.

Does more spending equal more democracy?

Perhaps not. The Citizens United decision was passed by a slim 5-4 majority. Whilst some judges saw it as upholding American traditions of freedom of speech, one judge saw it as threatening "to undermine the integrity of election institutions across the nation" by enhancing the role of corporations and unions. Obviously, some countries, including the UK, cap parties' spending on the basis that wealth should not be the main player in political discourse.

Interestingly, whilst Clinton has condemned Citizens United and has committed to reversing the decision should she be elected, her most supportive super-PAC has apparently raised more money than any super-PAC ever. Ironically, the super-PAC's most generous contributor has said that he supports Clinton in "cleaning up the unfortunate disaster created by the activist court in Citizens United," meaning that this super-PAC may contribute to its own elimination.

Moreover, the amount spent on elections in the US is not reflected in turnout - in 2012 it was a fairly low 54.9% of the voting population. Indeed, such spending, especially on non-stop television advertising, may generate voter cynicism and fatigue. Conversely, some argue that high spending is a reflection of the health of American politics, and that elections are actually relatively cheap.

Whether or not America’s immense spending on elections is morally or politically justifiable, it seems that unless action is taken, spending is set to rise election year on election year. Presidential candidates will seemingly try to win power at any cost.