US elections: The biggest auction on Earth?

discusses the escalating price of the most powerful office in the world

Photo Credit: Scout Tufankjian

Photo Credit: Scout Tufankjian

With a population of 314million, the world’s largest economy and an army fit for world domination, power in the USA is highly coveted. It’s no surprise that congressional and presidential positions come with great power, and with that comes an equally great price tag. The 2012 US elections saw every spending record broken and totalled more than $7bn – but why are American elections so costly?

The USA landmass spans over 9,800,000 km2, only slightly smaller than Europe, and is home to the world’s 3rd largest population. With such an immense and diverse number of people dotted around a huge area, the sheer quantity of dollars needed for a presidential candidate to get a message to everyone is immense. It dwarfs British electoral spending ($49 million), and makes French campaign spending ($30 million) seem like loose change. So, with so much land to cover and so many people to reach, a trove of money is imperative.

Those who criticize the amount spent on elections can point to the Citizens United law. This 2010 Supreme Court decision declared that the first amendment granted corporations and workers’ unions a constitutional right to unlimited spending on independent political broadcasts.

Citizen’s United v Federal Election Commission came before the Supreme Court after the non-profit organisation wanted to air a video of the then senator, Hillary Clinton. The documentary titled ‘Hillary: The Movie’ expressed strong opinions and questioned the capability of Mrs Clinton running for presidential nomination.

Upheld by the court, it ruled corporations had the same right in voicing political opinions as individuals, thus freeing up spending on political broadcasts. This led to a huge surge in spending, and subsequently the most expensive election cycle in history, with adverts and broadcasts being by far the biggest and most expensive items on candidates’ lists.

To find another well-financed source of support for prospective presidents, we need look no further than political action committees, or ‘Super-PACs’. These groups have unlimited power in raising and spending as much as they like on the condition that donors are revealed. The largest Super-PAC, House Majority, raised an impressive $8.6 million. This, topped with non-profit groups not having to disclose donors (albeit spending less freely), supports former chair of the Federal Election Commission Michael Toner when he says ‘the sky is the limit here’.

2012 saw numerous institutions, corporations and business magnates donating hundreds of millions to both Obama and Romney. Those who donated to Obama included The University of California, Microsoft, and Google, while Romney’s campaign fund was added to by Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and J.P Morgan. Celebrities who also donated include Scarlett Johansson, Steven Spielberg, and Morgan Freeman. Those who do donate must clearly express their political views. With this support and more besides, Obama was able to in out-fundraise Romney, who managed $79.2 million compared to Obama’s $313 million.

With midterm election campaigning a few months away, during which all seats in the House of Representatives and 33 seats in the Senate are to be contested, the amount of money spent will surely break records. Is it safe to say this is the biggest auction on Earth?

One comment

  1. Unless of course the super pac runs the money through a 501(c)(4) which does not need to disclose its donor list. In this case, the super pac can raise dark money, which is untraceable and unlimited. Also super pacs only have to reveal their donors every three months, once they start reporting, which can be months after the pac first receives funds.

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