Who Funds Political Campaigns?

The politicians running for president of the United States and the 435 seats in Congress spent at least $2 billion on their campaigns in the 2016 election, and over a reported $1.4 trillion for the midterms in 2018.

The funds for political campaigns come from average Americans who are passionate about candidates, special interest groups, political action committees whose function is to raise and spend money trying to influence elections, and so-called ​super PACs.

Taxpayers also fund political campaigns directly and indirectly. They pay for party primaries and millions of Americans also choose to contribute to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

Individual Contributions

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Every year, millions of Americans write checks for as little as $1 to as much as $5,400 to directly fund their favorite politician's re-election campaign. Others give much more directly to the parties or through what are known as independent expenditure-only committees, or super PACs.

People give money for a variety of reasons: to help their candidate pay for political ads and win the election, or to curry favor and gain access to that elected official down the road. Many contribute money to political campaigns to help build relationships with people they believe can help them in their personal endeavors.

Many candidates also self-fund a portion of their campaigns. According to the research group Open Secrets, the average candidate provides about 11% of their own funding.

Super PACs

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The independent expenditure-only committee, or super PAC, is a modern breed of a political action committee that is allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money obtained from corporations, unions, individuals, and associations. Super PACs emerged from a highly controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

Super PACs spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2012 presidential election, the first contest affected by the court rulings allowing the committees to exist. In the 2016 election, they spent a reported $1.4 billion.


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Even if you don't write a check to your favorite politician, you're still on the hook. The costs of holding primaries and elections—from paying state and local officials to maintaining voting machines—in your state are paid for by taxpayers. So are the presidential nomination conventions.

Also, taxpayers have the option of contributing money to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which helps pay for the presidential elections every four years. Taxpayers are asked on their income tax return forms: "Do you want $3 of your federal tax to go to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund?" Every year, millions of Americans say yes.

Political Action Committees

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Political action committees, or PACs, are another common source of funding for most political campaigns. They've been around since 1943, and there are lots of different kinds of them.

Some political action committees are run by the candidates themselves. Others are operated by parties. Many are run by special interests such as business and social advocacy groups.

The Federal Election Commission is responsible for overseeing political action committees, and that includes requiring the filing of regular reports detailing the fundraising and spending activities of each PAC. These campaign expense reports are a matter of public information and can be a rich source of information for voters.

Dark Money

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Dark money is also a relatively new phenomenon. Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into federal political campaigns from innocuously named groups whose own donors are is allowed to remain hidden because of loopholes in disclosure laws.

Most of the dark money making its way into politics comes from outside groups including nonprofit 501(c) groups or social welfare organizations that spend tens of millions of dollars. While those organizations and groups are on public records, disclosure laws allow the people who actually fund them to remain unnamed.

That means the source of all that dark money, most times, remains a mystery. In other words, the question of who funds political campaigns remains partly a mystery.

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Murse, Tom. "Who Funds Political Campaigns?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/who-funds-political-campaigns-3367629. Murse, Tom. (2021, July 31). Who Funds Political Campaigns? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-funds-political-campaigns-3367629 Murse, Tom. "Who Funds Political Campaigns?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-funds-political-campaigns-3367629 (accessed May 29, 2023).