Whether the problem is political corruption or political inequality, campaign finance is about paying for election campaigns. How much do they cost?

That depends on the kind of election. Presidential elections are the most expensive, and Senate elections generally cost more than nearly all elections for the House of Representatives. Elections for some state offices can cost as much as those for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. (State and local elections will not be covered here because the laws regulating them have to be compatible with the same Supreme Court decisions that govern federal campaign finance law.)

The size of the relevant electorate—the number of voters in the country, a state, or a congressional district—is a big factor in determining the cost of elections for these offices. It also matters whether a district is rural, suburban, or urban, or is part of a major media market. Candidates for president have to reach every voter in the country, which is why presidential elections will always be the most expensive.

Senate candidates from most states have to reach many more voters than are in a congressional district, which explains the greater cost of Senate elections. Senate candidates in 2014 spent an average of $7,800,000, while House candidates spent an average of only $1,100,000.3

The number of "open seat" elections for any one of these offices will also affect the cost of campaigns. Open-seat elections are ones in which no incumbent is running for reelection, and they are more expensive than ones in which a challenger is trying to unseat an incumbent. Incumbents usually win, so they do not need to raise large campaign funds, and challengers find it hard to raise funds of even moderate size.

The total cost of House elections, on the other hand, is not much affected by the number of open seats. Several members of Congress retire every year, which means the increased cost of electing someone to fill the seats they vacated is a constant feature of House election costs. The much larger number of House candidates—700 to 800 every cycle—and the generally equal size of congressional districts means there is little year-to-year variation in overall spending. The average spending figure of $1,100,000 for 2014 House candidates is close to the average for all House elections since 2000.

There is much more variation in the cost of Senate elections. Only one-third of Senate seats are up for grabs in each election cycle, so the much smaller number of candidates and the widely varying size of state populations can create big differences from one election to the next, even without open seats. The $7,800,000 candidate spending average for 2014 is almost $2 million less than the average for 2012 and $3 million more than the average for 2008.

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