It makes my head spin to think that I have already been teaching long enough to tell this tale, but…
In 2004 I taught my very first undergraduate course, 16 weeks on presidential elections for 90 students. Based on my own belief that the amount of money in presidential elections is increasing exponentially rather than linearly – essentially doubling every four years rather than a steady increase on the order of 10% annually – I promised the students that they would see a half-billion dollar election in 2004. To say they were incredulous would be an understatement; they wrote me off as either a complete idiot or a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist with some curious ideas about what made the World Trade Center collapse. The class ended before the FEC data were finalized, but the combined Kerry ($225 million) and Bush ($272 million) campaigns fell within millimeters of the half-billion figure. And that was merely the official, on-the-books "hard money" raised and spent by the campaigns themselves. Hundreds of millions more were spent by 527 groups, the DNC/RNC, unsuccessful presidential candidates, and so on. Ed 1, credulity 0. For the next several years in a variety of courses I promised groups of skeptical students that we would see a billion dollar election in 2008 (major party nominees' campaigns only) with $500 million left over for the primary losers and non-campaign spending.
I guessed low.
In 2008 we had a half-billion dollar primary and a general election that saw the Obama campaign raise $58 per second for the entire month of October. Obama raised $745 million, McCain a "mere" $370 million. Mitt Romney spent $107 million and didn't make it out of February. Rudy Giuliani spent $58 million and didn't make it out of Florida. The RNC threw another $120 million onto McCain's sinking ship. Non-campaign groups poured in more. It was, by almost any account, obscene. We even had a burst of passion for reform from conservatives (oddly enough it came when they were outspent for the first time since reliable records became available).
Now in the wake of Citizens United vs. FEC plenty has been said about the folly of corporate personhood and the opened floodgates courtesy of the patriotic, non-activist majority on the Supreme Court. There appears to be widespread consensus that this is a bad thing. This is all correct, of course, but here is the thing: you have no idea how fucking ridiculous this is going to get in 2012. We will look back on 2008 as a simpler time.
A decent guess is impossible to generate since we are in uncharted waters from this point forward. An obvious guess would be another 100% increase; I think that will be a baseline. The campaigns themselves will double the $1.5 billion spent by all contenders in 2008. How much will corporate groups – not to mention various other tax code loophole groups – toss on the fire? Another $3 billion seems like a reasonable guess, equal to the amount that the candidates spend on the books. I think that's an understatement. $10 billion? $20 billion? More? It's not out of the question. I could just be a pessimist, but I think we are in for something so grotesque and ridiculous that we'll scarcely be able to grasp it. In short, we could be in for an election so obscenely expensive that it could shock us into real reform.
But I wouldn't count on it.