Erin Schaff / The New York Times

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, raised a total of $383 million in September, outraising President Donald Trump by more than $141 million.

November 4, 2020

Breaking Down the $14 Billion Spent in the Most Expensive Election in U.S. History

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Despite the pandemic-induced recession, the total cost of the 2020 election reached an unprecedented $14 billion — the most expensive election, by far, in U.S. history. Nearly $6.6 billion was spent on the presidential election alone, while $7.4 billion was spent on Congressional races in the House and Senate.

While election night delivered mixed results for the party — ambitions to expand its House majority and retake the Senate look increasingly bleak — Democrats consistently outraised Republican challengers down the ballot in the 2020 election cycle. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden raised a total of $383 million in the month of September — another record-breaker — outraising President Donald Trump by more than $141 million.

Similarly, the average Democratic Senatorial challenger raised $23.1 million from July through September, more than twice the $10.4 million average for their incumbent Republican opponents.

The Sun sat down with former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who currently serves as Director of the Cornell Institute of Politics and Global Affairs, to discuss the “green tsunami” and the fundraising surge of Democratic candidates over Republicans opponents in the 2020 election cycle.  

“Money plays a critical role in political campaigns and has become a form of energy in political campaigns,” Israel said. 

Generally, the candidate who spends the most money usually wins the race. For House seats, more than 90 percent of candidates who spend the most win. However, there is a point where money starts losing its effectiveness.

For instance, this cycle’s massive cash hauls were headlined by Jaime Harrison, Democratic opponent of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who raised an unprecedented $57 million from July through September, breaking quarterly fundraising records for any Senate candidate in U.S. history. 

But despite the major financial advantage, Harrison failed to best the incumbent, falling by a larger-than-expected 10-point margin.   

Democratic candidates and left-leaning groups raised $1.5 billion through ActBlue, a virtual fundraising platform, over the last three months — a record-breaking total that reveals the overwhelming financial power of small-dollar donors.

From July through September, 6.8 million donors made 31.4 million contributions through ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s favored online donation platform, averaging $47 per donation. Democratic small donors have compared ActBlue to their own version of Amazon.

“Donald Trump’s presidency has unleashed a form of nuclear energy of fundraising down the ballot,” Israel said. “The best fundraising tool for Democrats down the ballot in the 2020 election cycle has been anti-Trump sentiment.”

Over half of the $383 million total Biden raised in the third quarter— $203 million — came from online donors, while the average campaign contribution was $44. According to Israel, grassroots fundraising is the critical antidote for reducing the significance of corporate PAC money and mega-donors in political campaigns. 

“In the end, every three or five dollar contribution adds up for political campaigns across the U.S.,” Israel said.

Israel noted that Act Blue streamlined the efficiency of the campaign contribution process and simplified the process of donating to a political campaign. A donor can contribute to multiple political campaigns with a simple click and stores one’s credit card information — much easier than sending a check in the mail.

Republicans suffered the consequences of another “green tsunami” in the 2018 midterm elections and lost their House majority. In response, Republicans launched their own virtual fundraising platform, WinRed, in June 2019 as their answer to the Democrats’ platform. 

While WinRed raised record-breaking totals for Republican candidates — $620 million from July through September 2020 — it still lagged almost $1 billion behind Democratic donations from ActBlue in the most recent quarter.

According to Israel, large donors, including the Koch brothers, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and Bernie Marcus, spent heavily on both direct contributions and “Super-PACS” — vehicles that can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals to spend for or against political candidates. 

Female donors, many motivated by anti-Trump sentiment, contributed $2 billion to federal candidates in this cycle and represented 44 percent of all 2020 contributors. 

“After President Trump’s inauguration, many women were motivated to march and protest and others ran for Congress,” Israel said. “Women were inspired to voice their concerns about the presidency through money and their voice.” 

Overall, Israel said that “the future of political campaigns lies in grassroots fundraising propelled by small donors.”

He stressed that this will require campaign finance reforms to limit the influence of large donors and corporate money in political campaigns.

“These reforms will effectively level the playing field in democracy between donors who contribute a million dollars and donors who contribute 10 dollars,” Israel said.