Some Perspective on Campaign Spending in 2012

Many people lament spending on elections. I am not certain why they do: more money means more information for voters. However, their laments foster headlines like “presidential campaign the most expensive ever!”

The Campaign Legal Center has just published a study with a similar headline: the 2012 presidential elections will be “the most expensive on record.” They estimate spending will be 7 percent above spending in 2008.

I recalled that a seminal paper on campaign finance concluded, “From 1912 to 2000, presidential campaigns have accounted for approximately the same, small fraction of GDP.” Americans on the whole seem to spend a fixed and small part of national wealth on campaign spending.

How about now? Have current outlays grown as fast as GDP?

The data at the Bureau of Economic Analysis indicate GDP has grown 8.1 percent from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2012.

In sum, campaign spending in 2012 seems likely to shrink as a share of overall national wealth compared to 2008. That conclusion is compatible with spending rising to record in absolute dollars. Indeed, spending is likely to set such records in every presidential election unless the economy contracts over a four year period.

Amid all the complaints about “record spending” shouldn’t at least one person in the media point out that campaign spending is lower, maybe much lower, than history would have led us to expect?