WASHINGTON -- The 2016 presidential election had been predicted to be the most expensive ever, fueled by a massive field of candidates and the proliferation of super PACs.
But so far, the 2016 election isn’t as record-shattering as one might expect.
By the end of March, presidential candidates, super PACs and dark money nonprofits involved in the primary campaigns had spent slightly more than $1 billion combined. That’s a lot of money -- and a record for this point in the race. But it’s only about $100 million more than was spent in the 2008 election, after adjusting for inflation.
Super PACs are doing their part to shatter records, spending significantly more than in 2012. But spending by the candidates themselves, despite an unwieldy Republican field that numbered 17 at its peak, is in no way record-breaking.
Outside groups affiliated with -- or aligned against -- a particular candidate had spent $383 million. Other super PACs and dark money nonprofits that weren’t specifically aligned with a candidate, but were engaged in the race, had spent approximately $23 million. In total, these groups had spent $406 million. Almost all of this was spent in Republican primaries.
The spending by super PACs is significantly higher than in 2012 -- the first election where the unlimited money groups popped up as allied arms of campaigns. Super PACs, mostly those aligned with candidates, and an array of (mostly conservative) dark money groups combined to spend $124 million in the 2012 cycle, adjusted for inflation.
Super PACs were born from the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision and a lower court ruling that followed it. These groups are political committees that can raise unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions or billionaires, so long as they don’t coordinate their spending with the candidates they support.
This ban on coordination was stretched to its limits in the 2016 primaries, when candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal pretended not to be candidates so that they could raise unlimited funds for super PACs without illegally coordinating. This generated a fundraising surge for super PACs (and other groups). Bush raised more than $100 million for his Right to Rise USA super PAC -- more than any candidate committee has raised or spent to date on the Republican side.
The reliance on super PACs by the Republican field stunted fundraising and spending by candidates' actual campaigns. In fact, super PACs engaged in the race have spent $346 million -- more than the candidates themselves.
Spending by the actual campaigns of the 17 Republican candidates was $293 million. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) led a tiny field that has spent $328 million. Overall, candidates in both parties have spent a combined $624 million.
This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s less than the inflation-adjusted $894 million that candidates spent in 2008. Spending by candidates of both parties in the 2016 campaign has been less than in 2008.
Spending By Presidential Campaigns Through March 31 (2008-2016)
In the 2008 campaign, Clinton, then-Sen. Barack Obama and ex-Sen. John Edwards led a pack of Democratic candidates that spent $522 million in inflation-adjusted dollars through the end of March. The Republican field, led by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), spent $371 million, adjusted for inflation.
Nearly all numbers for candidates have declined in 2016 from 2008. Sanders is the biggest 2016 spender on the Democratic side through March, with $168 million. Back in 2008, Obama had spent an inflation-adjusted $212 million. This election, the third-biggest spender among Democrats was former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, with a little more than $6 million. In 2008, Edwards spent an inflation-adjusted $63 million. Three other Democratic candidates -- Bill Richardson, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd -- spent in the eight figures.
For the GOP in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is the top spender, with $70 million. That’s short of what each of the three leading Republican candidates spent over the same period in 2008, when Romney, McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent an inflation-adjusted $124 million, $79 million and $72 million respectively.
This cycle's record super PAC spending may decline in the general election, with Donald Trump the most likely Republican nominee. Most of the party’s biggest donors either previously funded super PACs for candidates other than Trump, or are contributing to anti-Trump super PACs like Our Principles PAC. Trump has publicly disavowed super PACs that have formed to support him and has attacked the party’s elite donor class.
The billionaire Koch brothers, the largest source of financial power in the Republican Party, have expressed displeasure with Trump. Charles Koch told ABC News that his political organization and the hundreds of millions of dollars it typically spends on elections may sit out this presidential race.
These developments show that a Trump nomination may prevent the 2016 general election campaign from costing more than the $2 billion-plus spent in 2012.