American Political Campaigns are Really Expensive

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


After reading half a dozen blog posts this morning about mega-billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his support of Newt Gingrich, I got curious about campaign financing laws in other countries, something I know nothing about. In Britain, it turns out, paid political advertising on television is banned (though the parties get a bit of free TV time during election seasons), party expenditures are limited to about $50 million during the year prior to an election, and individual candidates are limited to expenditures of about $10,000 each. But what about third parties, the bane of American campaigns these days? Here you go:

Individuals or groups that aim to promote or disparage electoral candidates are also subject to controls and restrictions on the campaigning that they can do. They may incur expenditure [] by holding public meetings or organizing public displays, or by issuing advertisements, circulars, or publications. They can spend up to £500 (approximately US$700) at a general election “presenting to the electors the candidate or his views, or the extent or nature of his backing or disparaging of another candidate.”

$700! Take that, plutocrats!

Roughly speaking, these limits mean that total campaign expenditures for a general election in Britain amount to $100-150 million or so (it depends a bit on exactly what you count). We have about 5x their population, so this would translate to something in the neighborhood of $500-750 million if the same rules applied here. That compares to actual expenditures of about $5 billion on federal offices during the 2008 campaign.

I don’t have any real point to make here. This is just a pure information dump. Anyone with serious knowledge of British (or other) campaign law should feel free to chime in if I’ve gotten anything seriously wrong here.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest