Dave Gilson gives us this awesome chart on spending in presidential campaigns in 2011 dollars:
This is very informative and just looking at the last five election cycles we can see major increases in how much is being spent. But it doesn’t tell us the whole picture. After all, the population has been growing a lot over the last 150 years.
Seth, at Enik Rising, gives us this chart that takes the same data and divides by the number of votes:
The trend over the last five elections was the same, but a couple of other elections pop out. First is the Bryan/McKinley election in which Bryan was riding the tide of Populist fever and threatening the business interests of the East Coast. Bryan, of course, ended up losing, but McKinley was shot in 1901 and Teddy Roosevelt took over and started busting up the trusts on his own.
In 1968 we had Nixon vs. Humphrey vs. Wallace. While Nixon won the electoral vote fairly handily, he only won the popular vote by 0.7% with Wallace pulling off the racist Southern vote as white Southerners abandoned the Democratic party for the second time. This was another time of social upheaval with the Civil Rights movement, women’s movement, and anti-war movement. And again, money flowed in to beat the more liberal and inclusive candidate.
We seem set to increase spending again, especially if we include Super PAC dollars, although I don’t know if we will break the 1896 record. That might have to wait for 2016.