More and more money is pouring into the American election campaign. The amounts are staggering – and on the one hand, no one knows where it came from. That has consequences.

To get a sense of the extraordinary role money plays in US election campaigns, it’s worth looking at Donald Trump. The US president is generally short-term and impulsive rather than long-term and strategic. But in a way, Trump didn’t let time pass.

He began collecting donations for re-election a few hours after taking the oath of office. Since January 2017, his team has been asking supporters for money week after week or running fund-raising gala where a photo featuring Trump costs $ 580,000.

Money is ubiquitous, indispensable, and also flows from obscure sources in the US election campaign. Above all, it is increasing. In the 2016 election, $ 6.5 billion (about $ 5.5 billion) was spent. A large portion of 4.1 billion went to Congressional elections, while 2.4 billion went to the White House race.

Money is freedom of speech

This record will be in 2020. At the end of August, 6.2 billion dollars had been spent on the race for the presidency alone. In comparison, in Germany, the parties in the 2017 federal election campaign spent around 100 million euros.

Money has always played an important role in US election campaigns, after all, the US is a big country. For example, election ads have to be placed in many regional markets, staff is needed and the candidate travels with his own campaign pilot. Since there is no government funding for political parties, the candidates and parties spend a lot of time collecting donations and a large part of the money is in turn donated to finding new donors.

For ten years now, a lot more money has suddenly been flowing into the system. This has to do with a groundbreaking ruling by the US Constitutional Court. In 2010, the conservative majority in the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the same rights as citizens and that any campaign donation limit violated the First Amendment. Translated, this means: money is freedom of speech.

The problem of dark money

That had serious consequences. Direct donations from citizens to candidates are still limited – up to $ 2,800 per year. But new lobby organizations that know no boundaries are shooting up: the Super Political Action Committees, or Super PACs for short. Individuals, companies, unions or other SuperPACs can donate as much money as they want to them.

The only limitation: a Super PAC cannot pass the money directly to the candidate. But it can advertise him indefinitely. Nonprofit political associations can also accept unlimited donations – they are not even forced to publish the authors. Hundreds of millions of dollars in “dark money” recently poured into the election campaign: dark money from unknown sources. In this way, influence on candidates can be hidden.

Are you interested in the US election? Washington correspondent Fabian Reinbold writes a newsletter about the election campaign, his work in the White House and his impressions from the US under Donald Trump. Here you can subscribe to the “Post from Washington” for free, which then arrives directly in your mailbox once a week.

Criticism of the conditions is increasing. For example, in the Democratic primary, left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders refused to support Super PACs. Instead, he relied on a network of individual donors – with considerable success. By far, most of the money in this primary campaign was spent by multi-millionaire Mike Bloomberg, paying more than a billion dollars out of pocket. The more important money became, the more multi-billionaires like Bloomberg and Trump felt their opportunities.

money is not everything

But money isn’t everything. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton raised twice as many donations as Trump. While Democrats were able to advertise more on television, Trump dominated media coverage, reached voters with cheap online ads, and got his message across. By the summer of 2020, Trump had far more money available than Joe Biden without this reflected in the polls. Ultimately, it is not the one who has the most money, but the one who presents itself better as a candidate.

The strong polarization in the country is still an excellent way to raise money, mainly because of concerns that the hated adversary could lead the way. Some observers had expected that willingness to donate would diminish in the aftermath of the pandemic and economic crisis, but that is not the case. In August alone, Biden raised $ 364 million – a new record in the history of the US election.

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