With the US presidential election at a predicted price tag of $2.5bn, one is left wondering just how much is too much spending in the campaign to name the leader of the free world. While some see this as a healthy expression of a passionate debate, for the majority the onslaught of day-to-day advertising warfare is not just repetitive, but wasteful.
We developed this month’s chart to examine how the current U.S. election spending compares to that typical of the rest of the democratic world. Rather than looking at the individual markets and extrapolating their cost per vote — after all, the U.S.’s 131m voting populace is not immediately comparable with the U.K.’s 27m — we tailored a rest-of-the-first-world sample to be of the same size as the U.S.’s electorate. We combined the voting numbers from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Canada, arriving at the sum of 129m voters in elections from 2007-2011.
The results show a stark contrast. The predicted expenditure for the U.S. presidential election came to about $19 per vote, 5.6 times larger than the average of democratic elections in our sample, at about $3 per vote.
What does this $19 buy you? Many would say it’s a waste. Quoting Philip Davies, director of the Eccles Centre for American Studies in London in a recent BBC article, “People are carpet bombed.” On the other hand, says Michael Toner, former chair of the US Federal Election Commission, “Americans last year spent over $7bn [£4.5bn] on potato chips – isn’t the leader of the free world worth at least that?”
There are, of course, alternatives to this system of fundraising. Democracies elsewhere, particularly in Europe, pose significant restrictions on spending and airtime allotted to each election. Some, like Germany, limit fundraising altogether and instead allocate public money based on the number votes in the latest election.
Whether or not the advertising arms race will actually decide the election is questionable. Common wisdom suggests that this prolonged assault will fall on deafer and deafer ears, especially for the large part of the electorate that claims to be already decided. Nonetheless, the U.S. does cherish its freedom of speech, and we doubt if presidential candidates will give up their ads any time soon. Let’s hope, as Katie Paine suggests, they’ll get smarter at spending their money.