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Republican primary spending projected to approach or surpass $1 billion

Items for sale at the North Carolina Republican Party Convention in Greensboro, N.C., on June 9.
Allison Joyce
/
AFP via Getty Images
Items for sale at the North Carolina Republican Party Convention in Greensboro, N.C., on June 9.

The Republican presidential primary is getting crowded. With a former president and well-heeled politicians running, plus super PACs boosting them, it all points to what's likely going to be the most money ever spent to win the GOP nomination.

Early projections show it will likely cost close to or more than $1 billion, according to Open Secrets, which tracks campaign-finance spending. The final figure will depend on how long it takes for the nomination to be wrapped up.

"It's a lot of money to become a successful president in the end," said Sarah Bryner, research director at Open Secrets.

Like a never-ending arms race, the price to become president has skyrocketed.

In 2020, almost $6 billion was spent on the presidential race alone, roughly four times what it cost two decades ago. (Even adjusting for inflation, it cost almost three times as much as in 2000.)

Including congressional races, the cost was more than $14 billion, double that of 2016.

A potential record for Republicans

$1 billion in a primary would be a first for Republicans — and it would come from a combination of campaign and super PAC spending.

"The wild card here is how much we can expect to see in fundraising and spending by super PACs," Bryner said. "And those are subject to a lot more fluctuation because you can have one billionaire come in, drop $1 million, and that really changes the fundraising game."

In the last open GOP primary in 2016, candidates spent roughly $400 million, followed closely by super PACs, for $768 million in total primary spending, according to the former Campaign Finance Institute (which has since merged with Open Secrets).

In this cycle, candidate spending is expected to jump to at least $500 million with super PACs again spending about the same or a little less than the campaigns, Bryner said.

GOP candidates have deep pockets and big war chests

One big reason for the potential jump in spending is not just because of the number of Republican candidates, but also because many of them have deep pockets.

Trump has options. He's a billionaire, who can lend himself millions of dollars, but he's also shown an ability to raise heaps of money from small donors.

Trump's chief rival, Ron DeSantis, has a significant donor base and tens of millions left over from his gubernatorial campaign, which he transferred to a super PAC supporting him.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. is known to be a prolific fundraiser. At the end of 2022, he had more than $20 million cash on hand left over from his Senate races. He's already spent $4.6 million just on ads, according to data compiled by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact and shared with NPR.

No one is quite sure how much North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum is willing to spend, but he's got it if he wants to use it. That's because he's a billionaire, who sold his software company to Microsoft. He's the second-wealthiestgovernor in the country. So far, he's shown a penchant for the glossy — with a professional in-person kick off event and a $3 million ad blitz.

Where the money goes

Ads, ads, ads. It's still the most expensive part of campaigning.

Whether it's on TV, which is still the lion's share of the overall cost, or on digital and social media, which have been on the rise, these candidates have to be everywhere.

But how the money gets there is notable.

"The biggest sort of elephant in the room, by far, is that they spend money on advertising, and they do that by paying media consultants to buy that advertising for them," Sarah Bryner with Open Secrets said.

So, in other words, candidates don't pay the money directly to TV stations, but they hire media firms who design and place ads.

As Bryner notes, "60% of campaign fundraising, super PAC fundraising goes to media firms. And so that's far and away the biggest place that money goes."

The other biggie is staff. It takes a lot of people to run a professional presidential campaign. And there's also quite the industry around campaign consulting, many of whom are real professionals, who've run campaigns. Some others look for a wealthy candidate to convince to run — even if they don't have much of a shot — so they can rake in some of that cash.

The max people can give has gone up

Structurally, there's another reason more money is likely to be spent in this campaign — and that's because the maximum amount people are allowed to give has gone up.

It's jumped from $2,800 in primaries to $3,300 now, meaning someone can max out at $6,600 when you combine the primary and general elections.

"That's a pretty big increase," Bryner noted. "So if you just expect spending to increase by the fact that people have the ability to give more to candidates, which is still the primary way money enters, you would still expect to see pretty major increases in spending."

The reason it went up is because Congress ties the maximum amount people can give to inflation, and since inflation has been so high in recent years, the max automatically shot up. It's notable that Congress made sure to index campaign giving to inflation, but has been mired in fights over doing it for something like the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 for 14 years.

Raising money is a "full-time job" for candidates and elected officials

In some respects, it's understandable that Congress would make it easier for people to give more. Raising money is a huge part of an elected official's life.

Members of Congress, for example, have been instructed to spend four hours a dayfundraising, dialing for dollars, as it's known — unless they can find a billionaire supporter to fund their super PAC, which takes some of the pressure off how much time they have to spend on it.

"That's a pretty common critique levied against candidates, who currently hold office," Bryner said, adding, "theoretically, you're also supposed to be actually legislating or running your state or what have you. But I think it's a fulltime job by far."

Republicans likely won't top Democratic 2020 spending

Democrats blew through that $1 billion total spending figure in their 2020 primary — mainly because of the billionaires who ran, especially one in particular.

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg alone spent $1.1 billion – almost all of that his own money – with very little to show for it. Bloomberg, in fact, was the top spender of all campaigns in the entire 2020 cycle, including Joe Biden's and Donald Trump's general-election campaigns.

Tom Steyer, the venture capitalist and climate activist, spent $353 million on his Democratic primary bid. More than $300 million was from his personal fortune. And that was the fourth-most of any campaign, behind Bloomberg, Biden and Trump.

What's more, Democrats topped $1 billion just in advertising, according to AdImpact.

What about the Democrats this cycle?

President Biden is unlikely to face much of a primary, but that means he is going to be able to hoard his money for the general election. And we know he's already looking ahead.

Just this past weekend, after his first campaign rally in Philadelphia, he headed for the West Coast, where he attended four big-dollar fundraisers in the San Francisco area.

Biden's campaign in 2020 raised almost $1 billion, far more than Trump. The Republican National Committee helped boost Trump, though. Biden and the DNC combined for $1.7 billion in the 2020 cycle. Trump and the Republican National Committee raised just shy of $2 billion.

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But combined with super PACs, Democrats far outpaced Republicans.

And when it comes to outside Democratic donors, well, there's one big one, whose name has become entwined with false conspiracies on the right because of how much money he spends on progressive causes.

That's hedge-fund manager George Soros, who is now 92. Last cycle, he was the largest single donor to Democrats, but of the $125 million he donated in 2021 to Democracy PAC for the 2022 midterms - and the $50 million he added after those elections - $140 million remains unspent.

At some point, much of that is expected to land on the 2024 presidential election.

"That money is sitting there in super PACs waiting to be spent, which is sort of a war chest for the Democratic apparatus," Bryner said, adding, "Certainly you don't donate $1 million to something, you know, or $100 million in this case, and just have it sit there."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.