October 28, 2020


The total cost of the 2020 election will nearly reach an unprecedented $14 billion, making it the most expensive election in history and twice as expensive as the previous presidential election cycle. That’s according to an estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Center previously estimated the election would see nearly $11 billion in total spending. But an extraordinary influx of political donations in the final months — driven by a Supreme Court battle and closely watched races for the White House and Senate — pushed total spending past that $11 billion figure with weeks yet to go before Election Day.

Even amid a pandemic, everyone is giving more in 2020, from ordinary individuals making small donations to billionaires cutting eight-figure checks to super PACs. Women are smashing donation records, and Americans are increasingly donating to candidates who aren’t running for office in their state. “Donors poured record amounts of money into the 2018 midterms, and 2020 appears to be a continuation of that trend — but magnified,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Ten years ago, a billion-dollar presidential candidate would have been difficult to imagine. This cycle, we’re likely to see two.”

2020 Election to Crush Spending Records

OpenSecrets projects total federal spending in the 2020 election will near $14 billion, establishing itself as the most expensive election in U.S. history by a large margin.

The 2020 election is more than twice as expensive as the runner up, the 2016 election. In fact, this year’s election will see more spending than the previous two presidential election cycles combined. The massive numbers are headlined by unprecedented spending in the presidential contest, which is expected to see $6.6 billion in total spending alone. That’s up from around $2.4 billion in the 2016 race.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will be the first candidate in history to raise $1 billion from donors. His campaign brought in a record-breaking $938 million through Oct. 14, riding Democrats’ enthusiasm to defeat Trump. President Donald Trump raised $596 million, which would be a strong fundraising effort if not for Biden’s immense haul. Much of Biden’s campaign cash came in late as he broke single-month fundraising records for September and October.

The same can be said for Democratic candidates running for Senate in South Carolina, Maine and Arizona who now hold the top three spots for best fundraising quarters ever. Spending by deep-pocketed national groups also is driving the total cost of election higher.

In the month of October alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totaled nearly $1.2 billion. These groups are spending far more to boost Biden than help Trump, further aiding the Democrats cash-flush campaign. “When Citizens United was decided 10 years ago, conservatives were the quickest to jump on the newly permissible outside groups as a way to facilitate huge donations,” said Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “Now, liberal groups have more than made up the difference and are taking advantage of every opportunity available to get their message out.”

Democrats Dominate Election Spending

Democratic candidates and groups have spent $6.9 billion, compared to $3.8 billion for Republicans. Democrats’ spending falls to $5.5 billion when excluding spending by billionaire presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.

Driven by their supporters’ strong opposition to Trump, Democrats are continuing their fundraising prowess that helped them dominate the money race in the 2018 election cycle. Their money machine is more powerful than ever in 2020. Even when excluding the money spent by billionaire presidential candidates Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, Democratic candidates and groups have spent $5.5 billion compared to Republicans’ $3.8 billion.

Democrats have never had a financial advantage this large. Both parties raised more than ever from small donors, but Democrats came out on top. Democrats have raised nearly $1.7 billion from bite-sized donors, compared to $1 billion for Republicans. Overall, small donors account for 22 percent of the money raised in the 2020 cycle, a high water mark. These individual donors giving $200 or less only accounted for 15 percent of money raised in the 2016 election.

The Funding Behind Record-Breaking Spending

Small donors giving $200 or less — and self-funding from wealthy individuals — accounted for a larger share of fundraising than in the 2016 election.

The pandemic forced candidates to forgo in-person fundraisers with wealthy donors. Campaigns have increasingly relied on virtual fundraising using texts and emails, a strategy that works better when Americans are more engaged in politics. They first had to build lists of supporters to solicit donations from, an area where online ads on Facebook and Google proved to be immensely successful. Political groups have spent over $1 billion this year to advertise on these platforms, according to OpenSecrets’ online ads database.

Traditional PACs, often used by corporations to curry favor with lawmakers, are losing relative influence. They account for an all-time low 5 percent of giving. That’s because the PAC contribution limit of $5,000 hasn’t increased in decades, and corporate PACs have become toxic to some Democrats. Dozens of freshman Democrats in the House rejected corporate PAC donations during their initial run for Congress. While that wasn’t a sacrifice when they were challengers, they’re losing out on substantial campaign money as incumbents. Still, these members have made up that lost PAC money by bringing in substantial sums from individual donors.

Democrats are also raising more in large part because women are giving more. More than 1.5 million women have donated to federal committees, accounting for 44 percent of all donors. That’s up from 37 percent in 2016. In the 2020 election, women have given $2.5 billion through mid-October, up from $1.3 billion throughout the entire 2016 election.

According to the Center’s research, women are more likely to be Democratic donors. In the 2020 election, women giving over $200 have donated nearly $1.3 billion to Democrats and roughly $570 million to Republicans. Out-of-state donors, too, are boosting Democrats in key congressional races. Democratic challengers in swing states including Arizona, North Carolina and Iowa have raised the vast majority of their money from outside of their home states. In the South Carolina Senate race, where the candidates have spent a record-smashing $164 million, Democrat Jaime Harrison brought in 93 percent of his money from out-of-state, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised 87 percent from other states.

The North Carolina Senate race is already the most expensive congressional race of all time, with $265 million spent between candidates and outside groups. The Iowa Senate race has already claimed the No. 2 spot with $218 million in total spending. When all is said and done, at least the top four most expensive Senate races of all time will have taken place in the 2020 election cycle. That list will include the South Carolina and Arizona contests. As of mid-October, eight of the top 10 most expensive Senate races have taken place in the 2020 cycle. The battle for the Senate is the closest and most important contest of the 2020 election. That’s evidenced by unprecedented donations to Senate candidates, and record spending by big-money outside groups to influence Senate races.

Outside Spending Blows Past Record Marks

At this point in the 2016 election cycle, independent expenditures totaled roughly $1.3 billion. The 2020 election has seen roughly double that amount.

Outside spending by super PACs, political parties and “dark money” groups, among others, totals $2.6 billion. That’s nearly double the amount spent at this point in the 2016 election cycle. Super PACs account for 63 percent of all outside spending, while spending by groups that don’t disclose their donors is down to just 4 percent. That doesn’t mean dark money is going away.

Instead, these groups are funneling money to closely tied super PACs. Future Forward, a relatively new hybrid PAC that has spent $106 million to back Biden, got $33 million from dark money groups. The Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has received nearly $63 million from its allied dark money group One Nation. This phenomenon means spending by groups that only partially disclose their sources of funding is at record highs. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of outside spending comes from groups that fully disclose their donors, an all-time low.

Outside Spending Transparency

Dark money spending is down, but undisclosed funds are making their way into super PACs. Only 30 percent of outside spending in 2020 has come from groups that fully disclose their donors, an all-time low.

These big money groups are typically funded by ultra-wealthy individuals. The top 10 donors combined to give $642 million to federal committees so far this cycle. Roughly 98 percent of that money went to outside groups. Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, a physician, have given $183 million to GOP candidates and groups, the largest sum any couple has given in a single election cycle. The billionaire couple made most of their donations in the final months of the election, including $75 million to pro-Trump super PAC Preserve America.

In a repeat of the 2018 cycle, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is the second most generous donor. He’s given $107 million to Democratic committees in addition to his billion-dollar self-funding effort in the presidential race. Bloomberg sent $30 million to his flagship super PAC, Independence USA. In the final week of the election, Bloomberg announced he’d spend another $15 million to boost Biden in Texas and Ohio, Trump-won states Democrats are hoping to flip. Other deep-pocketed donors have worked their way into the top 10 for the first time. Wyoming investor Timothy Mellon gave $65 million to GOP committees in 2020 after giving $10 million in the 2018 cycle. Republican donor Jeffrey Yass gave $25 million, up from less than $8 million last cycle.

Top Industry Donors to Candidates/Parties/PACs

Donors in most of the top industries prefer Democrats over Republicans in the 2020 cycle. This chart does not include donations to outside groups. It excludes donations from retired donors, Democratic and Republican groups and candidate committees.

When excluding multi million-dollar super PAC donations from megadonors, Democrats see far more money from most industries. Lawyers have broken their own donation records to back Democrats, and educators are making over 90 percent of their donations to Democrats for the first time. Several industries have flipped over to Democrats’ side under Trump’s presidency, including the well-funded miscellaneous finance and securities and investment industries.

Real estate is one of the few major industries to stay in Republicans’ corner during the Trump era, giving slightly more to GOP committees than Democrats. Given their overall fundraising advantage, it’s not surprising that Democrats have gotten more from powerful industries. While Biden’s campaign is partly powered by small donors, it’s also boosted by Wall Street donors. The securities and investment industry has given $74 million to Biden’s campaign and allied super PACs, compared to $18 million for Trump’s reelection effort. Business interests have given nearly $4.6 billion, up from $3.4 billion throughout the entire 2016 election cycle. Labor, meanwhile, has seen its giving power decline.

Through mid-October, labor groups donated $175 million, accounting for a tiny fraction of campaign money.