The amounts spent by presidential campaigns in the US seem insane, especially from this side of the Atlantic.
In last year’s UK general election, all parties, candidates and other registered campaigners together spent a total of £61.7m. That’s £2 for every vote cast. In 2012, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, along with the parties and Super PACs behind them, spent almost $2bn combined – $15.32 per voter.
This year’s race for the White House is a similarly expensive affair. Current and former candidates have burned through a combined $1bn already, though much of this – like Ben Carson’s $63m and Marco Rubio’s $51m – didn’t get them very far.
As you might expect, Hillary Clinton has been this cycle’s most prolific fundraiser. $389m has been donated directly to her campaign so far, while her two “joint fundraising committees” – the Hillary Victory Fund and the Hillary Action Fund – have brought in another $229m. On top of that is Priorities USA Action, a technically independent “political action committee” (PAC) that has raised more than $100m and spent more than $70m supporting Clinton’s bid for the presidency.
Before turning her full attention to beating Donald Trump, Clinton had to use some of that money to secure the Democratic nomination against a surprisingly well-financed opponent. Bernie Sanders raised and spent $230m against her in the primaries. Most of his money came in through lots of relatively small donations: $200m came in increments of $200 or less, and Sanders regularly boasted that the average donation to his campaign was $27.
Clinton has had much more success wooing big donors: around a third of the money her campaign’s raised has come in contributions of $2,000 or more. Indeed, Clinton brought in $19m last month during just three days of California fundraisers, hosted by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Samuel L Jackson, Bob Iger and Tim Cook. At one event, in the home of Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, the campaign collected $200,000 from each of the 20 guests.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has failed to attract nearly as many donations – large or small. Between his campaign and two joint fundraising committees – Trump Victory and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee – he’s raised “just” $250m, some of which Trump donated himself. The PACs supporting him had raised a combined $28m by the end of July – peanuts compared to Priorities USA Action’s haul.
Trump’s fundraising efforts have picked up considerably in recent weeks: $170m of his $250m came in the last two months alone. He’s still not raising as much as Clinton, however, who brought in $250m in the same period.
Trump therefore enters the final stretch at a severe financial disadvantage. And that means fewer television ads and fewer campaign field offices. According to NBC, Clinton and her PACs have already bought $132m worth of TV time, compared to Trump and his PACs’ $29m.
Meanwhile PBS reported last week that Clinton has more than three times as many field offices as Trump: 291 to 88. Trump’s deficit is particularly acute in three of the states most likely to determine the election’s outcome: Clinton leads Trump 34–1 in field offices in Florida, 36–2 in Pennsylvania and 23–0 in Michigan.
These advantages on the ground and over the airwaves will probably help Clinton, though it’s hard to say how much.
In The Gamble, an excellent analysis of the 2012 election, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck found that the average field office boosted Obama’s vote share in that county by about 0.3 percentage points. However, they discovered that Romney did not get as big a benefit from field offices, suggesting that quality matters as well as quantity.
Sides and Vavreck also found that when Obama or Romney enjoyed a significant advertising advantage in a particular media market, that candidate experienced a boost in the polls locally, albeit a short-lived one. They estimated that a nine-ads-per-capita advantage for Romney in a county the day before the election boosted his vote share by almost one percentage point there.
Forecasting the effects of this year’s inequality of arms between candidates is tough, simply because we don’t have much precedent for it. If Clinton and her allies can continue to air significantly more ads than Trump – particularly in battleground states – it should help her. But it will also put this race in even more unchartered territory, as in previous years candidates have tended to roughly match each other’s firepower.
And, of course, we haven’t previously seen a candidate able to rely instead on huge amounts of free exposure from a compliant media. The effect of that, like so much about Trump, is hard to predict.