The good, the bad and the ugly: money in politics in the 2016 election

  • William Gray

As Donald Trump rides a wave of populism into the White House, fueled by voters’ desire to disrupt the status quo in Washington and its business as usual policies, here’s our take on the good, bad and ugly campaign finance outcomes from 2016. While the candidate who spent less money in the race for president won, this cycle highlighted the continuing trend that influence and access dominate our politics and who runs for national office.

The statistics, headlines and trends demonstrate more than just the dysfunction in our system — they are also breadcrumbs on the path to solutions and how we fix our broken politics.

The Good

  • Voters in South Dakota passed the first-ever statewide Anti-Corruption act, bringing sweeping ethics and campaign finance changes into the state, including a game-changing “democracy voucher” system. Voters in Missouri, Maryland, Washington state and a handful of others across the country followed suit with money in politics-related ballot reforms.
  • Every Republican and Democratic candidate for president — as well as numerous pundits, experts and members of Congress — addressed money in politics this cycle. That’s because reducing the influence of money in politics is a top-five voting issue for Americans across the political spectrum.
  • Small donors made their voices heard: 59 percent of contributions to Bernie Sanders’ campaign — came from more than one million contributors giving less than $200, totaling $134.6 million. Donald Trump raised more than $100 million in small-dollar donations, setting a record for a GOP presidential nominee.

The Bad

  • All five general election debate moderators failed to ask any questions about campaign finance laws or reform.
  • Both major presidential candidates’ flagrantly disregarded campaign finance laws (they courted foreign donations, coordinated with super PACs or accepted money from federal contractors).
  • This cycle’s presidential contest attracted nearly $42 million in dark money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—and that’s just what we can track so far.
  • Hillary Clinton’s refusal to sever connections with the Clinton Foundation and Donald Trump’s refusal to disclose his bundlers and his tax returns.

The Ugly

  • More than 3.3 million television ads, costing $2.3 billion, have aired this cycle.
  • Outside groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars to affect the outcome of congressional races, often dwarfing the candidates’ own campaigns.
  • Several opportunistic outside groups made money by scamming politically-engaged citizens, especially small donors, from both sides of the political spectrum
  • The 114th Congress spent a collective one million hours raising money, by conservative estimates, propelling total election spending to nearly $7 billion.  
  • This cycle, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place, ranging from strict photo ID requirements to early voting cutbacks and registration restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.