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Why the 2020 presidential election is likely to be the most expensive in history

The presidential election of 2020 is expected to be the most expensive in history. Both President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are drawing hundreds of millions in contributions -- despite a difficult year for fundraising. What's behind the rising costs of campaigning? Amna Nawaz talks to Campaign Legal Center’s Adav Noti, formerly a Federal Election Commission lawyer.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While the presidential candidates disagree on many key issues, their ability to make sure voters know about those disagreements comes down to one main thing: dollars.

    Amna Nawaz follows the money for us today on the campaign trail.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    By all accounts, the 2020 election will be the most expensive in history. Both presidential campaigns are raising and spending money by the millions, despite the ongoing pandemic and economic recession.

    It's part of a trend that sees each election more costly than the last.

    To track this, I'm joined by Adav Noti of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. He previously worked as a lawyer at the Federal Election Commission.

    Welcome to you, Adav, and thanks for being here.

    I want to ask you about these numbers.

    The president, we should mention, built up a really impressive war chest, nearly a billion dollars, which is why reports that he was in a cash crunch are so striking. But he's so far spent more than $800 million. It's such a massive number.

    How does that happen? Where is that money going?

  • Adav Noti:

    Well, a lot of it in any campaign, not just presidential, but on any level, goes to fund-raising and it goes to advertising.

    And the amounts that the Trump campaign has been spending on those, they have been certainly high. But every election cycle gets more expensive. Advertising gets more expensive. This cycle, fund-raising has been particularly difficult. So it's not hugely surprising that the campaign is spending more in 2020 than it did, for example, in 2016.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You say fund-raising has been difficult.

    We should point out, though, on the Democratic side, they're breaking records. When you look at the August fund-raising numbers for the Biden campaign, in August alone, they raised $365 million. That is more than double what Hillary Clinton raised in August of 2016. And it broke the previous one-month fund-raising record. That was set in September of 2008 by Barack Obama at $193 million.

    We should point out, though, Adav, that Biden hasn't spent so far nearly what the Trump campaign has, somewhere around $414 million through July.

    So, how do you explain that differential? Are they spending money differently or on different things?

  • Adav Noti:

    They are.

    The campaigns are spending money differently, although not necessarily on different things. I think both campaigns, like, again, most campaigns, including ones that aren't at the presidential level, spend most of their money on fund-raising and advertising.

    Each campaign makes its own strategic decisions about when and where to engage in that spending.

    Part of the Trump campaign's difficulty appears to be that it is not hosting in-person fund-raisers due to the pandemic. And that's where the big money comes in. That's where the wealthy donors, who can give tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the presidential campaigns and the parties, that's where they like to give.

    And so the absence of those fund-raisers appears to be hurting the president's reelection campaign.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about total political ad spending, though, not just from the campaigns, from outside groups, too, because some of these numbers are worth punching home.

    Last year, there was a study that forecasted, in 2020, total political ad spending would hit $9.9 billion in 2020. This was a forecast from a multinational communications and advertising firm. That would be up. The total was $8.7 billion. And that was up from the previous year of $6.3 billion.

    It makes the 2008 total of $1.1 billion look like chump change. But how and why is that amount between each presidential cycle, how is it accelerating so quickly?

  • Adav Noti:

    Well, in the current era, much of the increase is due to the rise of outside groups, like super PACs. Those groups did not exist before the Supreme Court ruled in its Citizens United decision that corporate spending directly on campaigns was legal.

    So, most of that rise in the last 10 years has been driven — or a big part of it — by outside spending and the need to compete with outside spending.

    And that not only causes campaigns and parties to need to fund-raise more, but also allows the sellers of advertising to jack up their rates, and, therefore, creates a cycle where the campaigns need to raise even more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Got about a minute left, but I need to ask you about some news that Bloomberg reported about President Trump considering bringing in his own money, lending himself about $100 million to his reelection campaign.

    The president has said that he's — he doesn't need to do it, but he will spend whatever it takes.

    Is that unprecedented for an incumbent president to take that kind of move with that amount of money? And what does that mean for future campaigns?

  • Adav Noti:

    Well, it's certainly unprecedented.

    And prior presidents, even those who had the means, took great care not to commingle their candidacies with their personal funds. So, it is unprecedented for the president to do that, whereas there's a history going back to the 2016 campaign of then candidate Trump saying he was going to spend a lot of money in support of his campaign, and the reality didn't always match that.

    But the trend more generally of very wealthy candidates sinking large amounts of money into their campaigns is really troubling. It heightens the distinction between elected officeholders, who are increasingly wealthy, and the people they represent.

    And, as more and more officeholders are in office because wealthy donors have funded their campaigns or they fund them out of their own pockets, it really creates that increased divide between the constituents and their representatives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's still several weeks to go for them to spend even more money.

    That is Adav Noti, senior director from the Campaign Legal Center, joining us today.

    Thank you so much.

  • Adav Noti:

    Thank you.

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