- Hardcore partisans, special interests, and shadowy figures have all tried to twist the race for the White House and control of Congress to their financial advantage.
- It's a dizzying scene, and even the experts can get confused. "No rational person would have set up a campaign-finance system the way it is," one former Federal Election Commission chairman said.
- Election 2020 is on track to cost $14 billion, obliterating previous marks, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates.
- To help Insider readers out, here's our review of the most burning money questions swirling around this election — and what's at stake.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Feel bamboozled by the billions of dollars gushing through Election 2020? Don't fret. It's not you.
Even the professionals are flummoxed.
"No rational person would have set up a campaign-finance system the way it is — it's a hodgepodge of laws and court rulings and FEC decisions," said Michael Toner, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who now leads the election law and government ethics practice at Wiley Rein.
Nevertheless, it's our system. It isn't going anywhere. And to ignore it is to ignore a ballroom blitz of hardcore partisans, special interests, and shadowy figures all trying to twist the race for the White House and control of Congress to their advantage.
To help Insider readers out, here's our review of 11 burning money questions swirling around this election cycle — and what's at stake:
Trump or Biden: Who really has more cash?
First, the big picture: Both presidential candidates are flush with funds and well positioned to run robust, national campaigns from now until Election Day.
President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are also unexpectedly conserving cash because the COVID-19 pandemic is crimping their campaigns' travel, event, and logistics expenditures.
Trump, mind you, has been running for reelection — and raising gobs of money toward it — literally from the day of his inauguration in January 2017.
Biden's anemic fundraising during a historically crowded Democratic primary resolved itself once he effectively secured the party nomination with Bernie Sanders' April withdrawal from the race. Biden quickly consolidated support and began vacuuming in cash from people who previously supported the Vermont senator, as well as Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and others.
As of mid-October, Biden's campaign committee enjoyed a sizeable lead over Trump's campaign, having raised nearly $938 million. It had about $162 million cash on hand, an Insider analysis of federal records indicates. Much of that came in August and beyond.
Comparatively, Trump's campaign, which led Biden in the cash chase as recently as this summer, has raised about $596 million overall and reported about $44 million in available cash as of mid-October.
These candidate committee tallies do not include the nine-figure sums that both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee have raised, much of which will directly support Trump and Biden, respectively.
The RNC has raised significantly more money than the DNC during Election 2020, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, although the two party committees had almost the same amount of money left entering October.
It also doesn't include a constellation of super PACs and nonprofit organizations that are spending mountains of cash on the presidential election. (More on that in a moment.)
In all, the Center for Responsive Politics estimated that all federal races together will cost about $14 billion.
Wait, I thought public money funded presidential campaigns with that $3 check-off on my tax return?
Once upon a time it did. But not now.
Blame Barack Obama, at least in part.
Upon securing the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Obama broke a promise to accept presidential matching funds for the general election against Republican nominee John McCain, who did accept taxpayers' matching funds.
No major party presidential nominee has taken public money since. The public presidential matching program still exists, but it's functionally obsolete, used only by a handful of White House long shots and minor party candidates.
More than $377 million languished in the fund as of September 30, according to federal records.
Could Congress repurpose that cash to, say, help fight the COVID-19 pandemic? Legally, yes. But lawmakers have so far chosen not to.
OK, let's now jump to super PACs. Start with the basics. What are they, exactly?
A super PAC — technically, an "independent expenditure-only committee" — may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to independently advocate for or against political candidates.
Not only may they accept money from individuals, as traditional PACs do, but also corporations, unions, and certain kinds of nonprofit groups.
Super PACs became a thing in 2010 thanks to a federal court ruling in SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission, which came several months after the better-known Citizens United v. FEC decision.
At one time, candidates feared what would happen if they tried to merge their efforts with super PACS.
"If we coordinate in any way, whatsoever, we go to the big house," then-Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in 2011.
Today, Romney's hand-wringing is laughably quaint. Some of the most notable have become de facto divisions of the Republican and Democratic parties and candidates openly consort with super PACs that support them by spending seven- or eight-figure sums.
Hundreds of federally registered super PACs exist, although only a few raise truly big money.
So, which super PACs are the big players in 2020?
Among the super PACs raising the biggest money, most are either helping Trump or Biden.
America First Action was once Trump world's alpha super PAC, populated by former Trump staffers and openly referring to itself as the "official" pro-Trump super PAC, although there's supposed to be nothing "official" about it. It even rents access to lists of Trump campaign donors' personal information, per the Daily Beast's Lachlan Markey. Through late October, it's spent about $124 million in service to Trump.
But another pro-Trump super PAC called Preserve America PAC — it's primarily funded by billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson — materialized in late August. It's since spent about $91 million on anti-Biden ads, messaging, and the like, according to FEC records.
There are other pro-Trump super PACs, including the Committee to Defend the President and Great America PAC, which have both spent seven-figure sums during Election 2020. Both super PACs have previously caught flak for their fundraising and accounting practices.
Biden's flagship super PAC is Priorities USA Action, which has spent more than $62 million this election cycle through Labor Day, according to federal records. Other pro-Biden super PACs — Future Forward USA, American Bridge 21st Century, Unite the County, PACRONYM, the LCV Victory Fund, and Michael Bloomberg-backed Independence USA PAC — have spent big, too. The anti-Trump Lincoln Project, primarily led by a team of disaffected Republicans, also serves as a de facto pro-Biden super PAC.
Although Democrats decry secret political money known as "dark money," these pro-Biden super PACs have nevertheless together raised tens of millions of dollars in "dark money," Insider reported in August. (More on this, too, in a moment.)
Other notable super PAC spenders include conservative Club for Growth Action, left-leaning VoteVets.org, and Women Vote!, which is sponsored by Democrat-backing EMILY's List.
While super PACs are big deals at the presidential level, they can play an especially outsized role in congressional elections. In a few congressional races, super PACs and other outside political groups have together spent more than the candidates themselves.
Down-ballot, liberal Senate Majority PAC and conservative Congressional Leadership Fund are posting huge numbers.
What's the deal with Citizens United v. FEC? Is that still a thing?
A quick history lesson: The Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United ruling from January 2010 allowed corporations, unions, and certain nonprofit groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to overly advocate for and against the election of political candidates.
The decision, written by then-Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, also provided the legal foundation for other federal court rulings related to money in politics, including the SpeechNow.org decision that led to super PACs. An overall increase in power and influence among so-called "outside" political organizations springs from Citizens United.
"An absolute game changer," says Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in Politics. "There's a lot less accountability."
And for all of Sanders' anti-Citizens United bluster during his presidential run and calls primarily by Democrats to reverse the decision via a constitutional amendment, here's some reality: It's not happening anytime soon.
Why? It takes two-thirds of both the US House and US Senate to pass a constitutional amendment, then three-fourths of US states must ratify it. The last time the nation amended the Constitution was 1992 — and that amendment was proposed … in 1789.
Let's talk more about 'dark money.' What the heck is that?
"Dark money" is generally considered funds raised for use during a political campaign that can't be traced back to a human source.
It's a scary sounding term that's become the currency of select members of two classes of nonprofit organization — "social welfare" groups and business leagues. The conflict: These nonprofits may legally spend a portion of their income on electoral politics but they're not generally required to reveal their donors' identities.
The primarily Republican-supporting US Chamber of Commerce and NRA Institute for Legislative Action, and the Democrat-backing Majority Forward and Big Tent Project Fund are examples of nonprofits that have each spent millions of dollars on political campaigns in recent years.
Notably, the NRA's nonprofit wing and sister PAC haven't yet been a major player in Election 2020 after spending more than $54 million during the 2016 cycle— much of it to support Trump.
Attribute this to the organization's ongoing leadership and financial crisis.
The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that "dark money" organizations have spent more than $1 billion on elections since the 2010 cycle.
Super PACs, which are supposed to publicly disclose the sources of their income, also trade in "dark money" sometimes. How? They simply accept and publicly disclose money from politically active nonprofit groups, which don't themselves disclose their donors.
Some conservatives consider "dark money" ill-defined or overblown.
"I've never really been able to nail anyone down with regard to what 'dark money' is," Trey Trainor, the Republican-appointed new commissioner of the FEC, said in a recent interview.
But Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said that "dark money" is frighteningly real and "there are fundamentally no rules anymore" that dissuade political actors from using it.
During the past decade, congressional Democrats have attempted to pass laws curtailing "dark money," to no avail. Meanwhile, the FEC doesn't have enough commissioners to enforce campaign finance laws.
My email inbox is full of political committees' desperate pleas for money. Are they always being honest?
For the love of your dignity and savings account, beware of tricks, games and gimmicks that'd make P.T. Barnum giggle in his grave.
For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee often send supporters emails with the subject line, "NOT asking for money." Click a couple of links, answer some questions, volunteer personal information and presto, they … ask you for cash.
Trump's campaign routinely texts supporters for a donation, promising to enshrine them in the "Trump 100 Club," immortalize them on the "Trump Donor Wall" or send them a "PERSONALIZED Trump Gold Membership Card."
Both Democrats and Republicans also habitually hawk "triple match" or "500% match" promotions. Lately, the Trump campaign has inflated that to an "EMERGENCY 8X-MATCH" and "975%-MATCH."
The idea: You give their committee $100, and it'll magically morph into $300, or $800, or whatever.
Ever wonder why they never, ever tell you who's doing the matching? It's because nobody is really matching your money. Even if someone was, they'd almost assuredly run afoul of federal campaign contribution limits of $2,800 per candidate, per election.
"This is a little corruption that is hiding in plain sight," said Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
And there are the rare, but notable examples of political committees that are straight-up scams or, at best, spend most of their money on themselves and their paid contractors.
The good news? Most political committees comply with rules and regulations. Those who don't risk fines, or in extreme cases, criminal prosecution.
Let's say I do donate. How much can I give a presidential candidate? Or a party committee? Or a super PAC?
Fully answering this question requires a very detailed chart.
Lucky for you, the FEC publishes one — because there's no way you'll remember the rules otherwise.
Perhaps the most relevant contribution limit is $2,800 — the maximum amount an individual may give a federal political candidate per election. (Regulators treat primary votes and general election separately, so the de facto limit is $5,600.)
Individuals may give up to $5,000 per year to a traditional PAC, such as one backed by a company, labor union or ideological group. As for super PACs, individuals — as well as corporations, unions and certain nonprofits — may give them as much money as they want.
Now please explain why political candidates always ask me to give some paltry amount to their campaign, like $5?
Seemingly de minimis donations serve several purposes.
Once someone donates a buck, campaigns will hit them up again and again. That money can add up. Small-dollar donors are also more inclined to vote or volunteer for candidates they patronize.
Some candidates also seek small-dollar street cred — Sanders is a prime example — that they tout as an elixir to big-dollar special-interest contributions.
"When a person gives $1 or $5, they have skin in the game," said Nick Penniman, CEO and founder of Washington, DC-based Issue One, which describes itself as a "cross-partisan political reform organization."
A $1 donation also scores political committees federally mandated personal information about you: your name, your address, your employer, and your occupation.
Political committees may rent or sell this information to other political committees or third-party data brokers, meaning your dollar may be worth more than you think.
What's up with the Federal Election Commission?
The FEC, which is tasked with enforcing and regulating the nation's campaign finance laws, is experiencing the darkest period in its 45-year history. It's been effectively sidelined for almost all of the 2020 election.
Let's rewind two years.
The partial federal government shutdown of late 2018 and early 2019 completely closed the agency.
The six-member, bipartisan FEC was back up and running in February 2019. But on September 1, 2019, its ranks had dwindled to three commissioners — one too few for it to legally conduct high-level business, such as completing investigations, offering official legal interpretations, and penalizing campaign-finance scofflaws.
This deep freeze lasted more than eight months. In May, the US Senate finally confirmed Trump nominee Trey Trainor, a Republican, who the president first nominated in September 2017. Trainor took his oath of office in early June. Soon after the agency conducted its first public meeting in nearly a year.
But business didn't last long: The FEC again lost its minimum quorum of four commissioners — again — after Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter resigned on July 3.
Trump in June nominated conservative attorney Allen Dickerson of the Institute for Free Speech to fill Hunter's spot. But as of October 30, the US Senate had yet to give Dickerson even a confirmation hearing, say nothing of an up-and-down vote.
On October 28, Trump also nominated two additional people to fill FEC vacancies. One is Sean J. Cooksey, who serves as general counsel to Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. The other is Shana Broussard, a staff attorney for independent FEC Commissioner Steven Walther, who Senate Democrats first recommended to the White House in 2019. If nominated and confirmed, Broussard would become the first Black commissioner in the FEC's 45-year history.
But it may be weeks or months yet before the Senate gets around to confirming any of these nominees. When the commission is eventually back up and running, it will have to grapple with a backlog of more than 300 cases, as of early October.
The one significant function that agency staff will still tend to is the processing and publication of political committees' campaign finance disclosures.
I keep hearing about ActBlue and WinRed. What are they, and what do they do?
At their core, ActBlue and WinRed are online fundraising platforms for Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
That might not sound particularly sexy. But they're deceptively powerful tools.
ActBlue formed in 2004. Since then, it's all but secured a monopoly as Democratic political committees' online fundraising portal. Political donors who save their financial information with ActBlue may simply click a single button, Amazon.com shopping cart-style, to make future donations to any candidate using ActBlue.
This has helped hasten a spike in small-dollar donations among Democrats, writ large. In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton didn't use ActBlue. During Election 2020, all major Democratic presidential primary candidates did, including Biden.
WinRed only formed in 2019 after Republicans cast aside their free-market sensibilities in the name of political efficiency. Many leading GOP entities, including national Republican party committees, have since adopted WinRed.
For better or for worse, there's a side effect to ActBlue and WinRed: increased transparency.
By law, political campaigns are not required to reveal the identities of donors who give them $200 or less during a single election. But because federal regulators consider ActBlue and WinRed "conduit committees," any donation you make through either platform that's transferred to a political committee becomes a matter of public record, complete with your name, address, employer and occupation.
If you never want your boss, spouse, or some nosy journalist knowing you sent $20 to Trump, Biden, or any of thousands of other political committees, become one with the 20th century, and mail a paper check.
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