The prevalence and influence of “Dark Money” has received growing attention in the media as politics increasingly consume the national dialogue. In 2018, we saw candidates forswear PAC contributions to position themselves as outsiders, beholden to no one. Additionally, many candidates railed against the influence of billionaire kingmakers and their Super PACs. However, this shifting attitude has done nothing to slow the deluge of money entering the political arena in recent years. Political media expenditures have doubled from 2014 to 2018, growing at a remarkably consistent rate of $750M a year.
If concern about the rise of super PACs is correct, one would expect issue group expenditures to be rising at the highest rate, driving the overall increase in political spending. But this does not appear to be the case. Our data shows that it is actually candidate spending that is increasing at the fastest rate. Democratic candidate expenditures have grown 171% from 2014 to 2018, nearly three times the rate of any other advertiser type. Democratic issue groups, GOP candidates, and GOP issue group expenditures have only grown between 65-68% within the same time frame.
Grassroots anger at President Trump, and the ability of small-dollar donors to give to candidates nationwide via ActBlue, has created a perfect storm in which Democratic candidates amass huge sums of cash on hand. The ease with which cash can be directed to prominent challengers has upended the status quo in which incumbents hold an inherent advantage in fundraising capability. But the level of Democratic candidate spending is likely driven more by the national environment than any technical advantage, especially given the recent announcement of PatriotPass and its integration with GOP Data Trust. Much of this Democratic spending trend is probably an outcome of expected backlash against a sitting president; the GOP held a similar monetary edge in 2010. While the Democratic spending advantage is largely driven by the national environment, watchdogs may still be encouraged by the increasing share of political spending that is coming from candidates rather than issue groups and super PACs.