Dollars per Vote in the 2016 Election

In the early days of the 2016 election cycle pundits were expecting the most expensive election ever. There were predictions of a $2 billion Hillary Clinton campaign and a $5 billion total for all presidential candidates. In the end, the campaigns spent less than expected, and less than in 2008 and 2012, and the winning candidate spent much less than the runner-up. “News” is supposed to be something unexpected, yet I haven’t seen many headlines about the drop in campaign spending and the dramatic revelation that money doesn’t always win.

Of course, in every election the bigger amounts are government spending. When politicians vote or promise to give money to students, the elderly, farmers, automobile companies, defense contractors, and other voting blocs, political considerations are certainly part of the decision-making process. When presidential candidates promise free college or a trillion dollars for infrastructure construction, they are clearly understood to be appealing for votes. When Republicans vote for $60 billion in “Hurricane Sandy recovery aid,” including money for Alaskan fisheries and activist groups, aren’t they buying votes? 

But for the moment, let’s take a look at how much the candidates did spend, and how much they got for it. I’ve added Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson to the usual Clinton-Trump comparison to get some perspective.

The vote totals are from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Spending figures for the Democratic and Republican candidates are from the Washington Post and for Johnson from OpenSecrets.org.

So the first thing we notice is that Clinton and Trump spent respectively just over $9 and $5 per vote, while Johnson spent less than $3. But party and outside groups more than doubled spending for the major candidates. All told, Clinton spent substantially more than Trump. She did get 2 percent more in the popular vote, but that wasn’t much return on the extra half-billion dollars. Johnson spent about six times as much as he did in 2012 to get three times the percentage, but we can only wonder how much of “the libertarian vote” a Libertarian Party candidate might pick up if he had enough money to be heard.