How Much Does It Cost To Win Election To Congress?

from the a-lot dept

A year ago, we wrote about a fantastic episode of the radio program This American Life, which was all about lobbying. One part of it revealed just how much time our elected officials in Congress spend fundraising, and the numbers were somewhat astounding. Both major political parties have set up phone banks across the street from the Capitol (because it’s seen as demeaning to do the calls directly from your Congressional office) and members of the House and the Senate spend a ridiculous amount of time there. The report suggested multiple hours each day on average, just focused on raising money for their re-election campaign. It’s really quite incredible.

The folks over at MapLight recently used Federal Elections Commission data on the 2012 elections to work out just how much it costs to win a seat in Congress:

  • House members, on average, each raised $1,689,580, an average of $2,315 every day during the 2012 cycle.
  • Senators, on average, each raised $10,476,451, an average of $14,351 every day during the 2012 cycle.

No wonder they’re hitting the phones every day. Of course, since these are averages, and averages can be skewed, it might help to dig in a bit, and thankfully, MapLight has supplied all the data in a handy dandy spreadsheet.

Digging a bit deeper, we see that the campaign that got the highest amount of money is (no surprise) Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign, which raised $42,506,349. That’s a real outlier, as the second highest amount was less than half of that (Sherrod Brown, who raised $20,945,196). The lowest amount for a Senate campaign? Angus King, the Independent from Maine who raised just $2,964,323 — though he’s beloved in Maine and most people thought he had the campaign locked up from the beginning (which is a good thing, since we need more non-partisans in Congress, and King seems to be quite good). There were a few other campaigns around $3 million as well. At the very least, the data suggests that $3 million is the basic entry fee. The median for Senate campaigns pops out at $9,341,391 — not far off from the mean. That median campaign was Dean Hellers.

On the House side, there were a few clear outliers, topped by Michele Bachmann’s $25,894,721 — though I assume much of that was raised back when she was running for President — so not particularly representative. The other outlier on the high end: Speaker of the House John Boehner’s $22,024,288. No one else came even remotely close. Third place was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who took in $7,640,467. Note that Bachmann and Boehner actually raised more than any victorious Senate campaign, other than Warren’s. The lowest amount raised? That would be Eni Faleomavaega (who?) who raised just $110,570. Of course, he’s a non-voting “delegate” to the House, representing American Samoa’s at-large district. Similarly, another non-voting delegate, Gregorio Sablan (from the Northern Mariana Islands) raised just $111,145. The lowest amount raised by a winning voting House member would be the $212,068 raised by Jose Serrano. The median amount in the House (including the non-voting members…) is $1,350,902 (for Rep. Janice Schakowsky). That’s just a bit lower than the mean, which is probably the impact of the two massive outliers on the high end.

Of course, this data only looks at the winners, not the losers, and you could make a case that that data is pretty relevant as well. Still, the data makes it clear that successfully running for office requires a lot of money, which is why our politicians spend so much time fundraising. If all that fundraising kept them away from making bad laws, perhaps it would be a good thing, but, of course, part of the problem is that implicit in at least some of the fundraising effort is that these politicians will scratch the back of the donors — which is how we end up in a world where so many politicians seem to focus on crony capitalism and rewarding those who fund their campaign, over what may be best for their actual constituents.

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Comments on “How Much Does It Cost To Win Election To Congress?”

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39 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

Holy Jeebus! More than half of them raised more than $1M. That would take me 30 years to earn working at my current wages. I mean, I will have my wages raised by more than 15% till the end of 2014 (yay!) but SERIOUSLY??????

This actually highlights the problem of allowing donations and lobbying. Some candidates will be able to spend shitloads in their campaign. In my opinion the Government should be the one an only funding the campaigns and every candidate should receive equal times in TV/Newspapers/And campaign money proportional to the political level (ie house < senate). And lobbying should be forbidden.

John Thacker (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Every candidate? Or just those of the two major parties? And what about candidates in party primaries?

If you limited it to the two major parties and didn’t control primaries, then all the buying and selling of politicians would just move to the primaries.

If you limit the funding to anyone polling a certain amount, or anyone getting enough signatures, then the fundraising and advertising and buying and selling will move to attempting to influence the polls and get signatures.

You clearly can’t just fund everyone who wants to run, with no cut off.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why should running require funds, anyway? Politicians are supposed to represent a majority of the public. Why should wealth have anything to do with who gets elected?
Personally, I think all would-be politicians, rich or poor, should be forced to compete on the same budget: $0. They’ve grown fat and complacent riding the campaign contribution gravy train. It’s time they had to get off and walk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Unfortunately your “solution” has as many problems itself as the current situation. There is the problem of graft, where some may run just to receive the funds (and “hire” friends and family). Put rules in place to prevent that and you’ll block some genuine candidates and probably discriminate against minorities. Corrupt governments will be tempted to create rules that exclude new third parties and hinder opponents. Then there’s the whole “free speech” aspect and the added cost to an already overstretched budget…

I doubt that we can achieve much better than require and enforce 100% transparency in political donation. Each and every donation, from free coffee up, must be publicly listed in a clear fashion and available for free in a standard, unobfuscated and searchable electronic format. The same should apply to all campaign expenditures, and to contributions and expenditures of non-candidates, such as PACs or individuals. Penalties should be severe, such as forfeiture of the election (with a special election to fill the seat) and ban from public office for the term of the election forfeited – and fines (of the same magnitude as the misreported funds) and perhaps jail time for non-candidates. Ideally, any deals made to secure funds should also be revealed, but I can’t think of any way to enforce that.

out_of_the_blue says:

Trick question. -- Doesn't cost anything, it's at worst an investment

in power, and likely will pay off directly, at least for the one elected.

By the way, soliciting “campaign contributions” (which is code for “put me in office and I’ll re-distribute wealth to you”), is quite like crowd-funding: you have an idea (getting yourself rich quick), and convince dolts to give you the valuable items that you need.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Career politician

Being a career politician can be a very nice living even if you lose.

And therein lies one of the major problems with so-called democracies. We’ve managed to create effectively a ruling class of politicians whos livelihood relies on “being a politician” rather than actually serving the population they are ostensibly elected to serve. Add in the mandatory money requirement and you pretty much guarantee that 90%+ of politicians are more interested in serving anyone that’ll pay them enough than the public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is Techdirt going full on constitutionalist, if not what does this have to do with tech or copyright, patents or tech innovation?

If your going constitutionalist let me remind you that where it says “The Right Of The People” that means you and I.

If not protected the progressive statists win.

Coming before 2016 NDAA Triggered, Habeas Corpus suspended, revolution.

Unless you stand for your natural rights now!

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Is Techdirt going full on constitutionalist, if not what does this have to do with tech or copyright, patents or tech innovation?

Money in politics is a common theme on Techdirt, especially when it comes to new laws such as CISPA, SOPA, PIPA, etc being proposed. The Question often comes down to “Who is buying this law?”

So with this little bit of information, we can learn how much it costs to “buy” a Congressman or Senator.

Brent (profile) says:

anyone else ever imagine what our government would be like if we didn’t have “career-politicians”? this occurred to me a few weeks ago and i’ve been trying to think of all the differences, good and bad, it would make in how things work. Largely i think it would solve a lot of the ‘waste’ problems we see today but i don’t know enough about the intricacies of ‘politics’/government to have a good idea of where to start the hypothetical changes.

NoahVail (profile) says:

Where is all this cash spent?

This info comes out of every election cycle.
Each year it seems that one end of the equation gets obsessive attention while the other is ignored completely.

Where is a Billion+ Election Dollars spent?

It’s a massive cash infusion to the corporations that own the news outlets that cover the candidates.
This may be the largest conflict of interest in America today.

I am endlessly puzzled why folks neither seem to notice nor find anything amiss with this.

DH's Love Child (profile) says:

Economic impact?

If I remember my civics correctly, elections are held every 2 years. So if my math is correct, that means that half of congress and 1/3 of the senate are elected in each cycle.

Further math would tell me that means 33 Senators and 218 Congresspeople are elected.

33*$10,476,451=$345,722,883 and 218*$1,689,580=$368,328,440

This means a total of $714,051,323 was spent on the winning elections. Almost 3/4 of a billion dollars mostly contributed by businesses who all claim to be losing money to some illegal upstart of one sort or another.

So, what else could these companies have done with this $700K+? Well, the average wage in 2011 was just under $43K, so this would have employed over 16,000 more workers.

Just sayin’

Aztecian says:

Re: Economic impact?

Yabbut math is HARD.

Besides, we elected them already. Now what we have is a set of strong incentives for politicians to sell influence and buy votes, with control of those incentives in the hands of those who benefit from them.

There are many good ways to fix the incentives… but they aren’t going to happen.

They don’t read the bills they sign, you have to know they aren’t going to do the math.

Auralee says:

Do you actually need any money to run for congress?

I checked out this posting because I want to run for congress, and was curious how much it takes to run. I have no money, but I’m really tired of the direction our government has gone and want to do something good for my country. Is there an actual monetary requirement to run? I know there is fees to get yourself on the ballot, but I haven’t been able to find anything other than “this is how much everyone else spent”

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