Do elections cost a lot more now than they used to?

The relative year-to-year stability of House campaign costs makes them a good indicator of the overall trend in the cost of all elections. The average amount that House candidates spend has increased over the years, but it has increased gradually, not in sharp bursts upward.

House candidates in 2014 spent a total of $821,000,000, which is less than the $952,000,000 they spent in 2012. If we looked only at the spending for these two elections we might conclude that the cost of House elections was declining. But the amount of money House candidates spent in 2012 is larger than the $708,000,000 they spent in 2000, and more than twice the $426,000,000 they spent in 1990.4

Candidates, however, account for only part of what is spent in campaigns. Party committees and non-party groups, such as political action committees (PACs), super PACs, and formally nonpolitical tax-exempt groups, also make expenditures on behalf of candidates. These are called "independent" expenditures because the groups making them are legally separate from and organized independently of the candidates they support. These expenditures have increased, too, but not always gradually.5

All forms of campaign spending have increased, but not all in the same way or for the same reasons. Candidate spending has increased gradually, partly in response to general economic conditions that affect everyone and partly in response to changes specific to campaign finance law and practices. Other spending increases, by party as well as non-party groups, were largely responses to changes in campaign finance law and were episodic.

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