In the 2008 Presidential Election, voter turnout was at record levels. 131,393,990 people cast ballots for the Presidential election. Of these, 69,498215 went to Obama (53%) and 59,948,240 went to McCain (46%). And the 2008 Election was--at the time--also the costliest in history, with a total of $1.6 billion spent by all candidates. Obama spent $740.6 million, while McCain spent significantly less--because he opted for public financing--only $358.0 million.
So let's do a little math. How much was spent by each candidate per vote?
Obama: 760.4 million/69.5 million = $10.94 per vote
McCain: 358.0 million/59.9 million = $5.98 per voteThese numbers don't include spending by the respective parties of each candidate, nor do they include spending by outside groups. Before looking at the numbers for 2012--which is were I am ultimately going--let's take a look at the 2004 Presidential Election, just to see how large the jump in spending was. In that year, George W. Bush--the eventual winner--spent a total of $367.3 million, while John Kerry spent slightly less, only $328.5 million. Bush won the election with 62,040,610 votes (51%), while Kerry received 59,028,444 votes (48%). Thus, the cost per vote for each:
Bush: 367.3 million/62.0 million = $5.92 per vote
Kerry: 328.5 million/59.0 million = $5.57 per voteBoth numbers--5.92 and 5.57--are in the same neighborhood as McCain's in 2008, reflecting the fact that all three opted for public financing.
So on to the Presidential Election of 2012, where neither candidate opted for public financing. We don't yet know the final numbers with regard to spending, but we do know that Obama raised more than $1.1 billion dollars during the election cycle, while Mitt Romney raised more than $931 million dollars. The total popular vote--as of right now--sits at 60,841,020 for Obama (51%) and 57,941,135 for Romney (48%). There are still some votes not yet included in this total, notably from Washington and Oregon, which could mean another four million votes or so. Allowing a 60/40 split for Obama, that would give Obama another 2.4 million votes and Romney another 1.6 million (remaining votes look to be in largely pro-Obama regions). With that assumption in place and assuming money raised is money spent, we have:
Obama: 1,100.0 million/63.2 = $17.41 per vote
Romney: 931.0 million/59.5 = $15.64 per voteIn 2008, Obama almost doubled the spending per vote, as compared to 2004. And in 2012 he almost tripled it. And Romney wasn't far behind. Still, what is obvious here is that the candidate who spent the most ultimately won. But what about actual turnout?
In 2004, the total voter age population (VAP) in the U.S. was just over 221 million. In 2008, it was almost 231 million. Turnout in 2004 was 122.3 million, while in 2008 it was 132.6 million, an increase in real terms and as a percentage of the VAP (55.3%in 2004, 57.5% in 2008). In 2012, turnout will be around 123 million, by my estimate, though I've seen some estimating it to be much higher, even as high as 129 million. Either way, though, it represents a drop from 2008. Some of that can be attributed to Hurricane Sandy, no doubt. But not all of it, not by a long shot. More importantly, though, the VAP for 2012 is close to 240 million. Even going with a turnout figure of 129 million means a turnout as a percentage of VAP of around 54%, lower than 2008 and 2004. Assuming a turnout of 124 million results in 52% turnout to VAP, a very significant drop from 2008, over five points.
When it comes to campaign spending, the idea is to do two things: convince supporters to go to the polls and sway undecided voters. So while looking at dollars spent per vote is a useful thing, we can also look at turnout, with respect to spending. Looking back at past Presidential Elections, turnout as a percentage of VAP has stayed below 70% since 1904. Since 1972, it has stayed below 60% and above 50% for every year except 1996 (when it was 49%). So let's set an arbitrary standard of 50% for turnout as a percentage of VAP--supposing this to be the starting point--and see how spending affected turnout for each candidate in this regard.
The 2004 Presidential Election: VAP of 221.3 million, so 5.3% of that (the portion above 50%) is 11.73 million votes.
Bush: 51% of 11.73 million = 6.0 million votes
367.3 million/6.0 million = $61.22 per each additional "turned out" vote (TOV)
Kerry: 48% of 11.73 million = 5.6 million votes
328.5 million/5.6 million = $58.66 per TOV
The 2008 Presidential Election: VAP of 230.8 million, so 7.5% of that is 17.31 million votes.
Obama: 53% of 17.31 million = 9.2 million votes
760.4 million/9.2 million = 82.65 per TOV
McCain: 46% of 17.31 million = 8.0 million votes
358.0 million/8.0 million = 44.75 per TOV
The 2012 Presidential Election: VAP of 240 million, so 3% (going with an average of my estimate and the high-end one) of that is 7.2 million votes.
Obama: 51% of 7.2 million = 3.7 million votes
1,100.0 million/3.7 million = $297.30 per TOV
Romney: 48% of 7.2 million = 3.5 million votesI'm assuming a distribution of TOV that mirrors the percentage of the vote each candidate received overall, for there is no way to accurately assess the real difference. But we know that in 2008, for instance, the youth vote increased substantially and we also know that a great majority of that increase benefited Obama, not McCain, thus the increase of turnout as a percentage of VAP (from 55.3% to 57.5%) was more heavily weighted to Obama than the 53% number I used. Regardless, the number are still striking.
931.0 million/3.5 million = $266.00 per TOV
In general, they tell us that in 2008 the huge increase in overall spending helped increase turnout, again both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage of the VAP (and in fact, the same thing happened in 2004, as compared to 2000). Yet somehow in 2012, an even bigger increase in spending did not increase turnout at all, not even in just raw numbers. Total votes are down from 2008, as is the turnout as a percentage of VAP, even as the VAP itself is up and spending is up. Why?
Obviously, there are qualitative differences to consider here, the state of the Union in 2008 as opposed to 2012, the actual platforms of the two major candidates, specific events in both the U.S. and the world at large, and so on. But I'd like to offer what I think are the most significant factors: 1) the tone of both campaigns and 2) the sheer volume of political advertising.
As regards the first, this election was simply too painful to bear for many, many people in my opinion. Both sides went negative with far too much gusto, having no problem calling the other candidate a liar or even a felon. It was an ugly campaign, start to finish and I believe many people who might otherwise have voted were disgusted by both sides, though the majority of them were probably people who might have otherwise voted for Obama. For there is no avoiding this reality: Obama lost millions of votes, as compared to 2008. Taking into account the increase in the VAP, he lost even more potential voters. Romney's totals for 2012 are roughly equal to McCain's in 2008, suggesting that at the end of the day, he failed to bring in many new voters, but didn't really lose that many.
The second factor--the volume of advertising--played an important role, as well. Many people were sick and tired of the ads, just from the standpoint of quantity. They tuned out what they were hearing and seeing and concerned themselves with other issues, perhaps deciding that both candidates were weak. And again, this means that some number of people who had previously voted for Obama were turned off enough to not return to the polls. They may not have been impressed with Romney, but they certainly weren't happy with Obama.
Thus, the dollars spent by both campaigns per TOV in 2012 are so large because the spending was far less effective than spending in previous elections. The increased spending failed to change more minds and it failed to attract new voters; it actually appears to have had the exact opposite effect: it lowered turnout and significantly so. We often worry that elections are bought, that he who spends the most tends to win, but the numbers from 2012 suggest there may be some sort of Laffer Curve in campaign spending, that after a certain point, increases in spending have the opposite effect from what is expected. Given the new standards for spending, we can expect even more money to be spent in 2016. It will be interesting to see if turnout diminishes again.