Election Spending Reached New High in 2014, Despite Fewer Donors


(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

February 19, 2015

Spending on Congressional elections reached its highest level ever in 2014, even though fewer Americans donated money, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

The tally found that the $3.77 billion spent in last year’s election cycle was the most ever for a midterm race, and came despite a five percent drop-off in “identifiable donors.” In all, 773,582 donors contributed to last year’s midterms, a decline of more than 96,000 donors to Congressional elections in 2010.

But those donors contributed a lot more. “At the same time the number of individual donors declined, the amount they gave increased,” said the report, which examined year-end election filings. The average contribution reached an all-time high of $2,639 in 2014, up from $1,936 during the 2010 midterms.

One factor behind the spending boom: the Supreme Court’s ruling last April in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The 5-4 decision effectively ensured a greater role for wealthy donors in U.S. politics, freeing donors to spend as much as $3.7 million per election cycle, up from a previous limit of $123,200.

A second explanation is the continuing growth in spending by outside political groups. Following the court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, outside groups were freed to accept donations of any amount, and in November’s elections they accounted for a record 14.9 percent of all spending, up from 9 percent just four years earlier.

But even when it came to spending by outside political groups, there were again fewer donors, reflecting the rising influence of what the analysis described as “a small pool of extremely wealthy individuals” in American politics. As the study noted:

In 2010, there were 57,405 individual donors to outside spending groups … who gave a total of $104.6 million, or roughly $1,800 apiece. In 2014, there were 53,725 donors to outside groups, whose average donation was $8,011. That’s an increase in the size of the average donation of almost 445 percent.

Related Film: Big Sky, Big Money

FRONTLINE’s 2012 film went to the epicenter of the campaign finance debate — rural Montana — to see how the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed campaigns in America.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Digital Editor



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

As Agnes Chow Is Sentenced to Prison, Revisit What the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activist Told FRONTLINE
Chow was featured in the February 2020 documentary “Battle for Hong Kong,” on last year’s mass pro-democracy protest movement.
December 3, 2020
How Did the Coronavirus Overwhelm a Florida Nursing Home So Quickly?
Nine months into the pandemic, the virus has killed more than 19,000 Floridians. About 40 percent of the deaths have been among senior care residents. Tampa Bay Times investigates a retirement complex that became an early epicenter.
December 3, 2020
Wisconsin Recount Targets 2 Democratic Strongholds, Home to Black and Hispanic Voters
Unlike other places, where the Trump campaign has pursued statewide recounts, the Wisconsin request was limited to Dane and Milwaukee Counties, where Biden held solid leads.
November 25, 2020
7 New Documentaries to Watch over Thanksgiving Break in 2020
Plus, one new podcast to listen to.
November 25, 2020