The cost of the US elections

The sheer numbers are staggering.

The 2012 U.S. elections will be the costliest ever with a projected total cost of $5.8 billion, a 7% increase from the $5.4 billion of 2008, according to information released by the Center for Responsive Politics. The presidential race alone will have a total cost of about $2.5 billion, which will be funded by the money raised by the candidates, the party committees of the Democrat and Republican parties, and the growing number of outside spending groups.

Just for the sake of perspective, let’s look at the numbers for the total cost of the last U.K. elections: a meager $49 million, as reported by BBC News.

But how can the gargantuan figure of almost $6 billion even be possible?

The answer lies on “outside money”, which has proved to be the wild card in the latest electoral process. The 2012 presidential elections features the debut of the Super Pacs, which are outside spending groups that can spend as much as they choose on political advertising, as long as they refrain from coordinating directly with the campaigns. Unlike traditional fundraising organizations, Super Pacs can raise money from corporations, unions, other organized groups, and even individuals, without having a maximum cap or legal limit. The ultimate result of this is that the amount spent by outside groups will make up a far bigger proportion of the total spent when compared to previous electoral cycles, and will amount to a minimum of $750 million.

When it comes to political contributions, if we analyze the available data by sector, the finance, insurance and real estate sector dominates the landscape, having contributed a total of $348.5 million as of October 1st, 2012. It is also of special interest to note that within industries and interest groups that have made donations to candidates, retired people have contributed the most, with a total of $179 million so far.

Some believe that this high spending is a positive sign, “very healthy in terms of American politics”, according to Michael Toner, the former chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission. But not everyone shares Toner’s opinion, especially in a time of general belt-tightening when this massive amount of funds could be better used for other purposes. Regardless of these philosophical considerations, the sky seems to be the limit when it comes to spending in the current electoral cycle, and it’s safe to say that even when the total cost of the 2012 elections might seem enormous, it will only grow in the foreseeable future.