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February 16, 2012

US Presidential Race Is Hugely Expensive, Highly Regulated

by Jeffrey Young

Both major U.S. political parties - the Democrats and the Republicans - spend massive sums of money on the race to win the White House. This effort is highly regulated by U.S. laws meant to ensure accountability and transparency. In this segment of How America Elects, VOA's Jeffrey Young looks at campaign financing and the rules that control it.

The most expensive residential address in the United States is not in Hollywood - or Manhattan. It's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington - the White House. Its current occupant, Barack Obama, raised nearly $750 million in 2008 to win the presidency and move in there.  

The two major U.S. parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are locked in a massive fundraising effort that escalates with every presidential election.

In 1992, the two parties raised a total of $135 million. Sixteen years later, in 2008, they collectively took in $1.68 billion.

Where does all that money go? At the independent research organization The Heritage Foundation in Washington, analyst Brian Darling outlines the high costs of campaigning.

"The advertisements that cost millions of dollars to run, be it radio or TV, the traveling expenses throughout the country - it's going to cost a lot of money for these candidates to travel on a daily basis, and also the massive campaign organizations that these candidates need to put together," said Darling.

In the 1970s, Congress created a federal regulatory agency called the Federal Election Commission, or F.E.C. Its twin goals are accountability and transparency, as outlined by Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly.

"Everything that campaigns and candidates and parties do in our [political] system is reported to our central location here at the F.E.C. And, that [information] is almost immediately available to anyone who wants it on our website," said Bauerly.

Current federal regulations limit presidential candidate contributions from individuals to $2,500, with most organizations limited to $5,000. Corporations and unions face strong restrictions.  

Along with creating the F.E.C., Congress also created a system of public financing, under which, in exchange for government funds, candidates accept limits on other cash they might raise. But in the 2012 presidential race, no candidates from either party have accepted public funding.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that outside advocacy groups have the right to raise and spend money to influence elections. These political action committees, commonly called "PACs," have increasingly become a major force in the electoral process.

"Really, there are few rules here for these groups," said reporter David Levinthal at the Politico newspaper in Washington. "They can raise and spend unlimited sums of money. They can spend it whenever they want to. There is no time limitation. The messaging they put out is not limited. They can directly, overtly, advocate for a candidate's election - or directly, overtly oppose a candidate."

Observers say the 2012 presidential election may be the first in which this outside "PAC" money may wind up exceeding what the candidates and their parties officially raise for themselves. And there are some who say they fear what may become a tsunami of outside money essentially determining elections.