The nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, www.opensecrets.org, is tracking election contributions, with its staff having gone through two million records.
“We've known, of course, that 2008 would be the most expensive ever,” Executive Director Sheila Krumholz told reporters in a pre-election analysis conference call.
Just how big will it be?
Krumholz estimates the federal election, including the presidential and all congressional races, will hit the $5.3 billion mark, surpassing the 2004 election cycle numbers by 27 percent. She said $4.5 billion already has been raised in all races.
Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama already have raised $1.5 billion since the election cycle began in January 2007. The Center for Responsive Politics noted that this is the first time that candidates for the White House have raised and spent more than $1 billion, and this year's total is on track to nearly double candidate fundraising in 2004 and triple 2000.
The presidential race alone is expected to reach $2.4 billion in funds raised, Krumholz added.
To put those numbers in perspective, Krumholz noted that US consumers spent $17 billion on Valentine's Day this year, and $8.7 billion on Super Bowl celebrations.
In California alone, itemized contributions for this campaign cycle have reached $283.7 million, with Democrats raising $185.9 million to Republicans' $96.8 million, the center reported.
And here in Lake County, contributions to congressional and presidential races this year total $99,150, up slightly from the $94,340 donated in 2004 and more than double the $41,182 in contributions to federal races in 2000, according to the center's statistics.
This election, Krumholz added, will blow through historic records on a number of counts.
In the 2008 election cycle, Krumholz noted that Democrats have raised 52 percent more in contributions than they did in 2004, while Republicans have shown only a 2-percent contribution growth rate in that same period.
Top contributors this year are those who list their occupation as “retired" (accounting for at least $204.3 million), lawyers and law firms ($180.9 million), the securities/investment industry ($122.8 million), real estate ($105.5 million) and health professionals ($69.6 million). Business interests account for about 72 percent of all contributions, with ideological, labor and other interests making up the rest.
Viewed more broadly, the finance, insurance and real estate sector once again dominates in political contributions, said Krumholz, exceeding $373 million in the center’s most recent analysis. Democrats have a slight edge with the finance sector.
The top donors this cycle, based on contributions from their PACs and employees, is dominated by companies in the financial sector, and most of them favor Democrats.
After ActBlue, the online organization that directs individual contributions to progressive candidates, the top corporation in 2008 is once again Goldman Sachs, the center reported. The global investment bank's employees and PAC have contributed at least $5 million to the 2008 campaign. Citigroup is next at $4.2 million, followed by JPMorgan Chase & Co. at $4.1 million.
The biggest-giving industry association is the National Association of Realtors, which has given nearly $3.2 million, the center reported.
Krumholz said Wall Street and other industries in the financial sector don't seem to have tightened their belts, with no signs of recession in their political giving. “Of course, their contributions may be part of a strategy to continue securing government assistance for their businesses as the economy heads further south,” she said.
Among the big-giving industries, the Democrats' advantage is smaller than in the overall election, Jrumholz said. Lawyers remain strongly in the Democrats' camp and Wall Street favors them, too; however, some of the other top givers – retirees, real estate and doctors and other health professionals – – mostly split at this point between the two major parties.
Additionally, Democrats have solid support in a number of traditionally supportive industries, of course, including the entertainment industry and among college professors and other educators, but Republicans can count on contributions from the oil and gas, pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, she added.
An important finding in the center's research of candidate contributions is that the lion's share of the money influencing US elections comes from individuals, said Krumholz.
The center has identified more than one million people – less than one half of one percent of the country's population – who have given more than $200 each to political action committees and candidates. That's down slightly from the 1.1 million individuals shown in the 2004 records.
Most of those people include lawyers, bankers and chief executive officers, she notes; guys like “Joe the Plumber” don't figure as prominently as “John the Bond Trader.”
Analysts have estimated that, historically, no more than 4 percent of Americans make a contribution of any size to federal politics. By comparison, about 10 percent of American taxpayers elect to dedicate $3 of their annual tax bill to the presidential public financing system, the center reported.
At the same time, many new donors have come into the fold in 2008, she said.
The big story in this election, Krumholz added, is the number of smaller donors who are coming into the process.
She said that 61 percent of donations to Obama's campaign and 37 percent of McCain's contributions are coming from people donating $200 or less.
Krumholz said both campaigns have done a better job of raising these small amounts, presumably over the Internet, as opposed to past years. It's also a more effective strategy than the direct mail model.
“This it the yellow brick road of candidates it the future,” Krumholz said of the Internet as a fundraising tool.
Those Internet donations can't yet be tracked, said Krumholz, adding that the center would like to see all congressional contribution data filed electronically.
Krumholz said incumbents and Democrats have the advantage in House and Senate races. The average Senate incumbent has raised $8.3 million (which includes money raised since the start of the six-year term in 2003) to the average challenger's $850,000, an advantage of nearly 10 to 1.
For candidates looking to claim an open Senate seat, the average is about $1.6 million and varies widely depending on the state's size and advertising costs, Krumholz reported.
The incumbent's advantage in the House also is lop-sided; members of the House have raised approximately $1.2 million through the third quarter of 2008, on average, while their opponents have raised an average of $286,000 – a 4-to-1 edge for the seat-holder. Open-seat candidates have collected about $497,000.
She said candidates for Congress in 2008 have spent nearly $95 million from their own pockets to get elected.
"You can't win a seat in Congress without being personally wealthy or knowing a lot of wealthy people who are willing to back you with their money," Krumholz said. "With Election Day coming up, it’s important for candidates and citizens to remember that you can't win without votes, either."
The center adds that if history is an indicator, most congressional incumbents should expect to return to Washington next year. In the last five elections, since the 1998 contests, an average of 97 percent of House incumbents have won re-election, as have 86 percent of senators. Even two years ago, when control of Congress shifted to the Democratic Party, 94 percent of House members still won re-election, as did 79 percent of senators.
In the 2008 election cycle, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates Democrats will end up taking 59 percent of the overall contributions, compared to the nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans in the 2004 cycle.
The shift in money, said Krumholz, followed the shift in power that occurred in Congress in 2006, when Democrats took over the majority.
Since then, Democrats have shown skillful use of online fundraising, especially in the presidential race, she said.
Tomorrow, Lake County's contribution numbers are broken down and analyzed.
E-mail Elizabeth Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.