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Andy Hullinger and Phillip Swarts/Medill News Service

Sources of funding for the Illinois 2010 Senate campaign. Both candidates drew most of their money from individual contributions, and neither spent any of their own personal money. Data is from OpenSecrets and the Federal Election Commission.

Elections are expensive, but don't require personal wealth, campaign finance expert says

by Phillip Swarts
Dec 08, 2010

Is the United States government becoming a government of the rich people? Stories abound of wealthy candidates spending millions of dollars on their campaigns, like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Another high-profile candidate, Rahm Emanuel, may also run up a high tab in his bid for Chicago mayor.  

Elections are certainly becoming more expensive. The website OpenSecrets, which analyzes federal election data, estimates that 2010 Illinois candidates for U.S. Senate Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias spent almost a combined $20 million in their campaigns. As for the U.S. House, of the 19 Illinois districts, 14 were won by whichever candidate raised the most money.  

So, does this mean elections are a rich-man’s sport? Is personal wealth a prerequisite for political office, and are campaigns becoming so pricey as to dissuade political hopefuls who don’t have deep pockets?  

No, says Brendan Glavin, data manager for The Campaign Finance Institute, a Washington, D.C. think-tank associated with The George Washington University.  

“Certainly the amount of money that is being spent to win the races is going up over time,” he said. But he added that it has been a gradual and steady trend. Analyzing the average amount of money a candidate for the U.S. House spends, Glavin said 2004 was the first year it broke one million dollars; estimates for the 2010 elections are at $1.4 million. Sure, there are cases of candidates spending millions of their own money, but one trend that emerged in 2010 was this: Many candidates who won in November were outspent by their opponents. 

“A lot of people who spent their own money ended up losing,” Glavin said.  

For example, in Alaska, Republican Joe Miller spent almost $100,000 of his own money, but still lost to write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski for the Senate.  And in the California Senate race, Republican Carly Fiorina, a former executive for Hewlett-Packard, spent more than $5 million of her own personal wealth, but still lost to incumbent Barbara Boxer. 

Personal wealth seems not to be a requirement for office. Glavin said that for all spending on U.S. House campaigns in 2008, only 10 percent came from candidates’ personal wealth. Fifty-four percent came from individual contributions and 36 percent came from Political Action Committees, a name given to groups that organize to support a particular candidate or issue. For incumbents in 2008, the amount spent from personal wealth drops to just 5 percent, while the amount from PACs grows to 45 percent, as incumbents are able to tout their voting record on certain issues to garner support.There is, however, a baseline amount of money needed to run a campaign.  

“If you’re not crossing a threshold then your chances aren’t very good,” Glavin said, but added that it’s difficult to pinpoint just how much money a candidate needs to run a competitive race. Success leads to more campaign donations which are used to create more success, but the biggest problem candidates face is getting that cycle going, Glavin said.  

Senate races are generally considered to be some of the most expensive, Glavin said, because it requires state-wide campaigning. But, he stresses, the amount of money candidates spend and need to spend depends heavily on the personalities of the candidates, how close the race is, and the nature of the state or district. 

As for Illinois’ new senator, according to OpenSecrets, 83 percent of Kirk’s campaign was funded by contributions from individuals, 16 percent from PACs, and one percent from “other.” The amount of his own money Kirk spent? According to OpenSecrets: $0.