The Crazy Cost of Becoming President, From Lincoln to Obama


Barack Obama spent $730 million getting to the White House in 2008—twice as much as George W. Bush spent 4 years earlier and more than 260 times what Abraham Lincoln spent in his first election (as measured in 2011 dollars). Looking at the total costs of presidential elections over the past 150 years, it would seem that the White House is the ultimate recession-proof commodity:

So is the White House overpriced? Depends on what you’re comparing it against. The increase in campaign costs (measured in real dollars) significantly outpaced the price of gold’s rise over the 20th century. Yet between 1908 and 2008, real campaign costs did not keep up with real GDP growth.*

We’ll see if these trends hold; 2012 could beat all records for campaign spending—and that’s not counting super-PAC money.

Note: Election costs include all major candidates’ spending and cost of primaries, when known; they do not include outside spending.

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics (election costs 1976-2008); George Thayer, Who Shakes the Money Tree?: American campaign financing practices from 1789 to the present (election costs 1860-1972); Bureau of Labor Statistics (CPI); Measuring Worth (pre-1913 CPI equivalents; GDP 1908-2008); World Gold Council (gold prices)

* This section and the chart beneath it previously compared real election costs with the inflation rate. To avoid confusion, it has been updated to compare real election costs with real GDP growth.

More MotherJones reporting on Dark Money

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