Fundraising in the 2010 Midterm Elections

It hardly comes as a surprise that the last few years have been less than strong for fundraising. In fact, the recession brought about the first decrease in giving in over 20 years. According to Giving USA, charitable gifts were down 2% and 3.6% in 2008 and 2009, respectively1. This is hardly news to anyone who works in healthcare, education, or social services, so I was surprised to learn that donations to one field actually surpassed pre-recession numbers: political candidates. Despite the huge fundraising challenges of this current economic climate, candidates for Congress and state houses have benefitted from fundraising numbers that dwarf those of previous midterm election cycles.

Traditionally, election years without a president on the ballot suffer from lower voter turnout and general disinterest from much of the population. So why, then, has 2010 been such a banner year for campaign giving? Is this year really any different than 2006 or 2002 or, for that matter, any other midterm cycle? It seems that, in a few crucial ways, the current political climate in the United States is particularly conducive to raising money in support of candidates for higher office.

In discussing political giving, it would be impossible to talk about 2010 without first looking at 2008. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised over $745 million. Congressional Democrats raised a combined total of $779,519,527 to their Republican counterparts’ $638,447,9282. Fast forward 2 years, however, and the spirit of hope and change that was synonymous with Obama’s election has faded as people begin to realize the amount of time change needs in order to take root. This general impatience is amplified by the rhetoric of emerging political groups like the Tea Party, and has lent urgency to the idea that the 2010 election is a referendum on the achievements of Obama’s first two years in office. Congressional Republicans have seized on the current political climate to stir up their base and mobilize financial support—so far raising $907,818,352, as compared to the Democrats’ $756,731,306.2

The capacity for political fundraising in 2010 has also been affected by January’s United States Supreme Court case Citizen’s United vs. the Federal Election Committee, in which a 5-4 majority ruled that denying a third party organization the right to fund political ads was in violation of their first amendment right to freedom of expression, regardless of funding source. The controversial decision, which has sparked a debate over whether corporations should have the same rights as individuals in the eyes of the law, has made 2010 the most lucrative year for political campaigns in history. While it is impossible to know the exact figures for corporate political contributions, (they are now frequently funneled through third party organizations) Public Citizen cites 149 of those independent third party groups as contributing $176.1 million to influence elections in 2010.

There are many factors that determine the effectiveness of every fundraising effort. Political fundraising has a unique responsibility to its beneficiaries since its returns have such long-term implications. This election has been the most expensive midterm in history, and with fundraising efforts already beginning for the 2012 campaign, it seems the growth trend will only continue. As I head to the polls this election day, I cannot help but wonder if these contributions will benefit our long-term growth as a country through the support of the very same health care, education, and social services that need successful fundraising far more than politicians do.

1 Source: Giving USA

2 Source: Federal Election Commission

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