On Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden boarded Air Force One and flew to the West Coast for a Democratic Party fundraiser, marking the first time that he has gone on the road as president to raise money for his party. It almost certainly won’t be the last.
After a stop in Portland, Oregon, Biden headed to Seattle. In both cities he headlined events sponsored by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where donors, many of them extremely wealthy, listen to the president speak and answer questions in closed-door sessions.
The trip marks a late start for Biden, who took office in January 2021. U.S. presidents are typically major sources of campaign donations for their political parties, but the kind of in-person events that give wealthy donors personal access to the president have so far been significantly restricted by coronavirus precautions.
Huge sums required
Much of the money raised by the president on behalf of the DNC is parceled out to state party organizations and to individual candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Typically, a president who expects to run for a second term in office also holds some fundraisers that benefit his own campaign organization, sometimes in concert with the national party committee. This is the case with presidents of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
U.S. presidents spend a considerable amount of time raising funds because running successful political campaigns in the U.S. has become extraordinarily expensive.
According to data collected by the organization Open Secrets, which tracks campaign donations and spending, candidates for federal office spent a staggering $7.6 billion during the two-year 2020 election cycle. When money spent by political parties and outside advocacy groups is added to the mix, the total soars to $14.4 billion.
2020 set record
In the 2020 presidential race, candidates spent $3.95 billion and parties and advocacy groups added an additional $1.75 billion. The majority of that money was spent in support of the campaigns of former President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential nominee Biden, with presidential candidates who ran in primary elections accounting for a relatively small fraction.
Candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate spent $3.68 billion on the 2020 races, according to Open Secrets. Party committees and outside groups spent an additional $5.05 billion.
Years like 2020, in which a presidential election is held, feature far more spending than midterm elections, when presidential candidates are not on the ballot. However, 2020 was remarkably expensive by any standard. Even when adjusted for inflation, the total spent on the election more than doubled the amount spent in 2016, the previous presidential year.
Cash on hand
Political parties and candidates for federal office are required to file regular reports with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) that document the amount of money they have raised and the amount of cash they have on hand.
According to FEC data, as of the end of March, the Republican National Committee had taken in $205.6 million in donations since the beginning of the current cycle on January 1, 2021, and had $44.9 million in cash on hand. Over the same period, the Democratic National Committee took in $172 million and had $52.9 million in cash on hand.
Former President Trump’s Save America Political Action Committee, as of the end of March, had $110.3 million in cash on hand, or more than the RNC and DNC combined. The political action committee would be in a position to direct those funds to Trump’s campaign, should the former president elect to run again in 2024.
Arguments about reform
There has been a long-running argument in the United States about whether the huge sums of money that flow through political campaigns have a negative effect on the public perception of the federal government.
“The cost of campaigns has been skyrocketing for a few decades, vastly outpacing inflation,” Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told VOA.
He said much of the recent increase was spurred by a Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case Citizens United v. FEC, which found it was unconstitutional for the federal government to restrict spending on political campaigns by corporations, unions and other organizations.
“This has created a sort of campaign finance arms race, where parties and outside groups that support them all sort of stumble over themselves to pursue the biggest donations from the biggest donors,” he said.
Vandewalker and others who advocate reforming the system argue that politicians’ constant need to raise funds for their next election has a corrosive effect on public perceptions of the federal government.
However, not everyone agrees. David Primo, a professor of political science and business administration at the University of Rochester, and his colleague, Jeffrey D. Milyo, chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Missouri, have conducted research on the question.
They began with the assumption that, if increased spending on political campaigns had the effect of further reducing the public’s already declining confidence in the federal government, that decline should have accelerated in the years following the Citizens United decision.
“If you look at patterns of attitudes toward government before and after Citizens United, you simply find no evidence that Citizens United represented a breakpoint in that trend,” Primo told VOA. “Basically, people were mistrustful of the government before Citizens United, and they were mistrustful of the government after Citizens United. There was no meaningful change.”
When it comes to the amount of money it spends on elections, the United States is an extreme outlier among the nations of the world.
“It’s not even close,” Robert Boatright, a professor of political science at Clark University, told VOA.
Boatright, who edited the 2015 book The Deregulatory Moment? looking at election practices worldwide, said that some of the reasons the U.S. spends so much more are structural. Because elections are held on a regular two-year schedule, the amount of time that candidates have to prepare and raise money is much greater than in countries with parliamentary systems, where governments can call elections with a few weeks’ notice.
Additionally, he said, “There's effectively no public financing of elections in the United States in comparison to pretty much every other democratic country. And there's very little regulation of outside groups’ spending.”
On a per capita basis, for example, Boatright said that the U.S. spends nine times as much money on elections as Canada does. And considering that the U.S. population is about nine times the size of Canada's, that means total spending on U.S. elections is more than 80 times larger than Canada’s.