The Money Quote

Now that the election is over in what turned out to be the most expensive presidential campaign — by far, even adjusted for inflation — in history, I thought it might be fun to play with the numbers a bit.

In John McCain’s case, it’s easy. He accepted public financing for his campaign, so his total for the general election is a nice, fixed amount — $84 million.

In Obama’s case, it’s a bit trickier. He raised a total of over $600 million for the race, but it’s pretty vague what was for the primary and what was for the general. Also, he has yet to release his October figures. But I think I can calculate a decent half-assed guess, extrapolated from a couple of data points– he got the nomination towards the end of August, and in September he raised $150 million. Let’s say he matched that in October, plus he had the end of August and the first few days of November. Just to make the math easier, I’ll say he had $316 million.

That would put the breakdown on election spending at 79% Obama, 21% McCain.

On the general election, that puts McCain at a considerable advantage for efficiency. With 21% of the money, he still pulled in 46.1% of the vote, while Obama only garnered 52.6% of the vote.

On the electoral side, it’s a bit more congruent. Obama got about 68% of the electoral vote, while McCain won only about 32%.

So, for spending 4 out of 5 dollars, he got only 2 out of 3 of the electoral votes.

Taking the raw numbers, Obama spent $4.83 for each popular vote, and $$865,753.42 per electoral vote.

McCain spent $1.46 for each of his popular votes, and $515,337.42.

So, on the one hand, McCain ran a far more efficient campaign.

On the other hand, though, there’s the old saying that “there’s nothing more expensive than the second-best military.”

In the end, McCain showed that he was, in many ways, a good loser. Because in the end, it’s results matter. McCain spent far less money, and spent it far more efficiently, but in the end he achieved exactly nothing. His spending totals, his popular votes, and his electoral votes all together, with five bucks in cash on hand, might get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks. And Obama, who spent money so profligately that drunken sailors were saying “whoa, dude,” ultimately has to be considered the more efficient — because he achieved his goal.

When we look back at this election, I think we will see that Obama didn’t just defeat McCain at the polls. He didn’t just kill McCain’s long-held presidential ambitions, he drove a stake through the heart of one of McCain’s proudest legacies: the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act. By rejecting public financing, by freeing himself of the limitations that imposes on who accept public money for the presidential election, Obama has proven that the election financing system is severely broken, and ain’t getting better any time soon.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that in 2012, the Republican nominee will also eschew public financing — and that both campaigns will end up raising over a billion dollars each over the entire campaign cycle.

For a job that will pay them a grand total of $1.6 million over four years.

I would also like to see political campaigns be forced to comply with the same financial reporting and security and responsibility demands that private businesses are obliged to meet. But I sincerely doubt that the Democratic Congress will be inclined to change the system that worked so well for them this time.

The one thing that gives me any consolation is that the vast majority of the money raised by the campaigns was spent here in the US, providing a healthy shot in the arm to the economy. (Here in New Hampshire, the primary is always good for our economy.) And as long as we continue to hold the first primary (which I do wish would come a bit later next time), we can continue to count on that quadrennial bonus.

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