So How Many Billions Of Dollars Did The 2020 Election Cost?

2020 was the most expensive election in U.S. history—by far.

President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden square off during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. | Getty Images
President Donald Trump and then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden square off during the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. | Getty Images

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, estimates that the 2020 federal election cost a total of $14 billion, making it by far the most expensive election in U.S. history — and double the amount of the previous most expensive election ever, 2016.

An estimated $6.5 billion was spent in 2016 on the presidential and congressional elections, which set a record at the time. Federal election spending in the U.S. has been on a steady climb, from more than $5 billion in 2008 to more than $6 billion in 2012. But now it seems to be increasing at an exponential rate, with 2020’s unprecedented total.

The Center, which tracks spending in U.S. elections, points to a few different reasons why spending was so astronomical this year: “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,” CPR staff wrote in a post breaking down 2020 spending. They added: “Women are smashing donation records, and Americans are increasingly donating to candidates who aren’t running for office in their state.”

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center, noted that “donors poured record amounts of money into the 2018 midterms, and 2020 appears to be a continuation of that trend — but magnified.” (2018 was the most expensive midterm election ever, costing more than $5.7 billion.)

Krumholz added: “Ten years ago, a billion-dollar presidential candidate would have been difficult to imagine. This cycle, we’re likely to see two.”

The Center says that President-elect Joe Biden is “the first candidate in history to raise $1 billion from donors.” Biden broke single-hour fundraising records in September during his debate against President Donald Trump and then broke monthly records, only to top it again in October.

The fundraising is not yet over — Biden is currently raising funds for his “Biden Fight Fund,” an election defense fund for legal fees that his campaign and lawyers are spending in court to defend the legitimate election results, which Trump is seeking to undemocratically overturn. Trump is calling his effort the “Official Election Defense Fund,” even though in practice he is attempting to upend the election, not defend it. Legal experts warn that the fine print on Trump fundraising emails also shows that not all the money is actually going to offset legal costs, but rather to the president’s new PAC and the Republican National Committee.

In addition to small individual donors, “spending by deep-pocketed national groups also is driving the total cost of election[s] higher,” the Center wrote. 

Super PACs and “dark money” groups spent some $2.6 billion, nearly double the amount they spent in 2016. That money is going both to candidates from both parties.

“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,” Sarah Bryner, research director at the Center, said. “Now, liberal groups have more than made up the difference and are taking advantage of every opportunity available to get their message out.”

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September spurred supporters of both parties to donate in record amounts, given the high-stakes of the Supreme Court. (Trump was ultimately successful in installing Amy Coney Barrett as RBG’s placement, against her dying wishes, thanks to the slim GOP majority in the Senate.)

The future of that Senate majority is still being decided, via two critical runoff races currently happening in Georgia which will undoubtedly add to the record money being spent this year. The runoff election date is January 5, and the deadline to register in Georgia is December 7.