U.S. elections tend to be framed as a context between two ideologies, manifest in two parties. The electoral pattern of two parties is a result of the structural design of our voting districts, which are geographically based with winner-take-all outcomes. But the two parties conceal the diverse and complex attitudes of citizens. For example, many voters care more about environmental issues than the dominant issues emphasized by the two main parties, and these tend to be poorly represented by the 2-party structure. In short, greens are neither red (conservative) or blue (liberal). Indeed, a green voter likely supports nuclear power, carbon taxes, stewardship of nature, and is just as likely to be conservative on fiscal and social issues as liberal.
What is exciting is that such extra-partisan ideological viewpoints are able to be expressed in the new political infrastructure. What is often called “third party” politics is in fact extra-party politics: activity and expenditures made outside the 2-party system. Legally, this kind of activity is defined in campaign terms as “independent expenditures” or IEs for short. Want to see what has happened to IEs in recent elections?
According to the latest numbers, there were just over $1 billion IEs in the 2012 election cycle, which is more than the previous 20 years combined. The total amount of non-partisan expenditures in 1990, for example, was less than one half of one percent of the current level. Do you the RNC and DNC are happy? Do you think the election laws should be reformed to make the RNC and DNC happy?
Don’t cry for the duopoly. The RNC raised $1.023 billion and spent $1.009 billion in this cycle. The DNC raised $1.068 billion and spent $1.067 billion. That’s more than either party raised or spent in 2010 or 2008 or any year ever before. Even so, those three (party 1, party 2, and all non-party expenditures) were amazingly equal, but not likely to stay equal in the years ahead. To be sure, much of the IE money goes for partisan candidates, but that should not obscure the diversity and partisan-blindness of it by nature. Pro-life expenditures will just as happily support red or blue candidates, so long as those candidates are aligned on their core issue.
For context, the size of U.S. gross domestic product annually is now around $15,000 billion. The annual advertising budget of local businesses is around $100 billion. Total U.S. advertising is approaching $300 billion. So are elections really being “bought”? Or perhaps should we hope for more money to be spent on politics than on fast food?