The most expensive U.S. election in history

Super PACs and the soaring cost of this fall’s U.S. election.


(Photo: Steve Simon)

All U.S. political conventions look the same, and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., was no exception. The DNC trotted out a series of familiar faces—most notably former president Bill Clinton on Sept. 6—to deliver a series of impassioned patriotic speeches.

One thing, however, is very different about this season’s presidential campaign: an explosion of election spending by groups known as super PACs. These third-party political action committees (PACs) can be formed by any group to express any opinion about the candidates, and spend as much as they like to do so.

Super PACs didn’t exist before 2010, when two Supreme Court rulings removed campaign fundraising and spending limits for such committees. Super PACs legally can’t co-ordinate their messages with candidates’ campaigns, but they can spend unlimited funds pushing their own messages.

The change has altered the calculus of getting elected. By September, super PACs had spent more than US$211 million. Of that, US$89 million went to anti-Obama messages—78% of that spent in August alone. Party conventions are always carefully staged pageants, but the stakes were higher this time. And so the Democrats rolled out their, ahem, big gun: the still popular Clinton.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney aren’t just campaigning against each other anymore—they must defend against hundreds of attackers sniping from the sidelines. That’s why, with nearly $700 million collectively spent so far, and weeks to go, the only sure thing is that this presidential campaign is on track to be the most expensive in history.