This post first appeared at the Center for Responsive Politics.
The final figures are in: The 2014 election was the most expensive midterm election in history, costing a grand total of $3.77 billion. But for the first time since 1990, fewer Americans donated money in this midterm election than the one before. Simply put, more money went into the system, but fewer people provided it.
On Nov. 5, the Center for Responsive Politics projected the 2014 election would be the most expensive midterm ever based on how much was spent through early October. A new analysis taking into account year-end filings confirms that projection — and finds our estimate was low by roughly $104 million.
Among the most significant findings that can now be confirmed is that there were far fewer identifiable donors in the 2014 election than in the 2010 cycle. Then, CRP counted 869,602 donors; in 2014, we have been able to identify just 773,582 — a decline of more than 96,000, or about 5 percent. (A caveat: Our figure accounts only for those who gave more than $200, since the FEC does not require donors of less than that to be itemized on campaign finance reports.)
The trend held true for candidates and political parties as well as outside groups: All relied on fewer people to raise more money.
At the same time the number of individual donors declined, the amount they gave increased: The average contribution by each individual rose to an all-time high of $2,639. In 2010, individual donors gave, on average, $1,936.
As projected in November, Team Red (Republicans and conservative outside groups), outspent Team Blue (Democrats and liberal outside groups), $1.766 billion to $1.722 billion, a margin of $44.4 million.
In fact, Team Red came out on top in almost every category: Its House and Senate candidates outspent their Democratic opponents, and the Republican National Committee’s spending beat that of its Democratic equivalent. Team Blue dominated in spending by the national party’s House and Senate arms and in outside spending. Democratic/liberal outside spending groups laid out $374.4 million, compared with $346.2 million spent by their conservative counterparts.
There were clear differences, however, in the type of outside spending preferred by each side. Team Blue led among outside groups that fully disclose their donors (mainly super PACs), spending $169.5 million to Team Red’s $152.5 million. But when it came to outside spending by dark money organizations that don’t disclose their donors, Team Red’s groups greatly outspent Team Blue’s, dropping $123.9 million to their opponents’ $34.7 million.
One note: This tally counts only spending disclosed to the FEC. Spending on so-called issue ads, which can attack or promote candidates but can’t explicitly call for their election or defeat, doesn’t have to be disclosed unless it runs close to an election. Estimates indicate that politically active nonprofits (dark money groups) spent more than $100 million on such ads, the bulk of which favored conservative candidates.
A key theme of the 2014 election spending was the shift away from an ever-broadening base of financial support toward reliance on fewer donors who gave more.
Spending by outside groups — organization that can accept donations of any amount and thus are largely fueled by a small pool of extremely wealthy individuals — was a larger chunk of the total cost of the election than ever before. An estimated 14.9 percent of all spending was by these groups (excluding spending by 527 groups) which is an increase from 2010 when the share was 9 percent.
Every area of traditional campaign finance saw a decline in the number of donors. Despite the increased cost of this election, the records that a number of races set in terms of overall cost and a huge focus on fundraising, there were just 434,256 identifiable individual donors to candidates in the 2014 election. That’s 107,000 fewer than there were in the 2010 election.
The number of individuals giving money to national party committees also declined — although this was not the first time that happened.
Even when it came to outside spending groups, there were fewer donors. In 2010, there were 57,405 individual donors to outside spending groups (including 527s) who gave a total of $104.6 million, or roughly $1,800 apiece. In 2014, there were 53,725 donors to outside groups, whose average donation was $8,011. That’s an increase in the size of the average donation of almost 445 percent.