Consider this campaign finance reformer’s nightmare scenario: Corporate interests flood a presidential election with money, ballooning campaign spending at six times the norm, and throwing a 5-to-1 spending advantage to the eventual winner largely because of one issue. This is not what’s happening in 2012. It’s what transpired in 1896:
…for every $1,000 spent in the U.S. in 1896, 60 cents went to finance a presidential campaign. And as we can see, that figure dwarfed those of other years.
My understanding is that spending in 1896 was largely driven by the Republican side, which outspent Democrats roughly 5 to 1. And that spending mainly came from large corporations enlisted by Marcus Hanna to beat back the silver-coining advocates they (correctly) perceived as a threat to their interests.
2012 looks likely to be the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history in terms of raw dollars. But 2008 didn’t stray so very far from fairly modest growth trends of the last half-century when the cost is compared to inflation or expressed as a percent of GDP. Third-party spending complicates things, but so far 2012 still looks to be a blip compared to 1896.