Was this election the most expensive midterm in history? It’s possible, but nobody really knows for certain. That’s because we don’t know the total cost of the 2014 elections, or pretty much any federal election. Here’s why: Despite the efforts of the Federal Election Commission, which has been faithfully disseminating campaign finance data since 1975, there are limitations in the ways that data is collected and summarized that make generating totals and comparisons very difficult. And there are other problems, too. In describing federal elections, users of the F.E.C.’s data — The New York Times among them — have regularly cited statistics that are aren’t strictly accurate or have made comparisons without regard to the impact of inflation or population. In a paper presented at the American Political Science Association conference this year, Robin Kolodny, a political-science professor at Temple University, challenged the idea that we know each election is more expensive than previous ones, or that we even know how much campaigns really cost. This lack of knowledge fuels our perceptions of money in politics as an issue, she concludes.
“Perhaps the feeling that campaign spending must be rising is not due to a significant increase in money coming into the political system, but rather a function of superior information obtained through disclosure and better understanding of how some groups circumvent legal barriers,” Ms. Kolodny writes. “However, present understanding does NOT mean that current money flows are higher than those we understood less well in earlier times.”
Ms. Kolodny’s paper, “Do We Know the Cost of Campaigns in the U.S.?” is a reminder of how the oft-cited data compiled and published by the F.E.C. is not treated the way that, for example, official economic statistics are treated. Among the problems she cites:
The numbers aren’t comparable across time. The F.E.C., and most organizations that rely upon its data, report campaign finance figures in current dollars, not adjusting for inflation. In current dollars, almost every election is more expensive than the last. Some organizations account for this, but many journalists don’t.