The Math

In 1980, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan spent a total of $92 million on their campaigns for President. If the spending on Presidential campaigns had increased at the rate of inflation, it would have been $240 million in 2008. But it was $1.32 billion - five and a half times the rate of inflation. This all happened before the 2010 US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which will significantly increase campaign expenditures.

When a number increases at an exponential rate, the graph of that increase looks like a hockey stick.  (See chart below.)


Campaign spending data courtesy of Center for Responsive Politics: 2012 is projected spending.

Campaign spending in the United States has gone “hockey stick.” 

It isn’t surprising. Decisions made by the President put trillions of dollars in play. The decision to go to war in the Middle East cost 3.7 trillion dollars. Decisions relating to health care (2.6 trillion in 2010), Wall Street (1.2 trillion in 2008) or energy exploration (1 trillion from 2000 to 2011) can result in trillion dollar swings in the allocation of resources. 

If the oil industry spent a billion dollars on the campaign of a Presidential candidate who was friendly to off-shore drilling or the Keystone pipeline, their return on investment could be off the charts.

In fact, political influence is cheap. An industry gets a better return on its investment influencing politicians than it gets on plant, labor or equipment.

We can expect continued exponential growth. Right now, pundits exclaim because, for the first time, a single presidential campaign might surpass a billion dollars. But at current trends, most of us will see the first trillion dollar campaign. What will stop it? 

And for our democratic process it means disaster.

As more money is spent in campaigns, money becomes more important, and a vote becomes less important. Politicians already return big donor calls first and constituent calls the day after never.

When campaigns cost many billions or a trillion, then the only important actors will be huge industries. You will have the candidate from the oil industry running against the candidate from the pharmaceutical industry, with Wall Street playing both sides, so that they don’t get hurt no matter who wins. The right likes to point at union contributions, and for Congress they are significant, but at current union membership and economic trends, they soon won’t have enough money to be major players.

Most political players in the game look at this and say, “Okay where do we get more money?”  At we say, “How do we change the way the game is played?”

The answer is in electing candidates who show by their actions that they want to represent people… not money. We are supporting candidates who show their values and courage by turning down special interest money. This will be a successful strategy. Americans have rewarded courageous and principled candidates in the past. They are desperately looking for them now.

Sure this effort will involve struggle, commitment, courage, leadership, and sacrifice. What worth doing hasn’t? 

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