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The $2 Billion Election to Come

If you care about who gets elected in 2012, you better be prepared to open your wallet. The next election is going to be expensive. Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle told the Financial Times last week that it could cost the two main presidential nominees more than $2 billion. In fact, he said, “Two billion may be conservative.”

Together, John McCain and Barack Obama spent a little over a $1 billion on the 2008 presidential campaign. Daschle, in other words, is predicting that campaign spending will more than double. And that’s after the last presidential election already broke spending records. Obama’s campaign alone raised $750 million—roughly twice what George W. Bush raised in 2004, and seven times what Bush raised in 2000.

Part of the reason campaign spending will probably increase so much—far faster than inflation—is that in the next election both major candidates are expected to refuse public campaign financing and the spending and the limits that come with it. Obama will refuse public money because he can raise more on his own, and his opponent—whoever it may be—will refuse public money because he or she needs to keep up with Obama.

The other factor, of course, is the enormous influx of so-called “outside money” into politics after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United last year that the First Amendment guarantees corporations the right to spend as much as they like on independent political advertising. Most of that money came from large corporations and from the very wealthy, and most of it went to Republicans—although labor groups spent some money on the Democratic side.

After being soundly outspent—and taking a beating—in the 2010 midterms, Democrats are gearing up to raise outside money of their own. Although Republicans are likely to retain their fundraising advantage in 2012, the amount of money the Republican candidate will have to raise to be competitive against the incumbent Obama—who won’t have to spend any of his money fending off a primary challenge—will make challenging him a daunting task. As former Federal Election Commissioner Michael Toner told The Financial Times, “Any Republican who wishes to run in 2012 must seriously weigh whether he or she is capable of raising the $700 million or more that will be needed to compete with Obama.”

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