The Center for Responsive Politics reports that total spending in the 2020 election reached $14 billion, more than its estimate of $11 billion and more than double the spending in the 2016 election. 

But what did the candidates get for all that money? For some, they did not get the outcome they were hoping for, even when they drastically outspent their opponents. Money can help candidates get their messages in front of voters, but at the end of the day, it needs to be matched by grassroots support to help win the hearts and minds of voters.

This dynamic was particularly evident in 2020’s Senate races. With the balance of power up for grabs, state-level contests quickly turned national as financial support for Democrats like Maine’s Saa Gideon and South Carolina’s Jamie Harrison poured in from across the country.

According to the Washington Examiner, Gideon spent $63 million, more than double Republican incumbent Susan Collins. Yet, Collins defeated Gideon by nine points despite trailing in both polling and fundraising. It was a similar story in South Carolina, where Jamie Harrison lost to Republican Lindsey Graham despite raising more than twice as much money. 

These cases show that incumbent advantage is tough to beat, no matter how much money a challenger has. In an op-ed for The Atlantic, political scientist Eitan Hersh argued that out-of-state donations often help the donor far more than they help the candidate.

“In a democracy, the purpose of politics is to gain and then exercise power over public policy. Rage-donating to long-shot candidates—of either party—isn’t a winning strategy, Hersh wrote. “Rather than stopping and thinking and planning a strategy—which candidate or organization would make the best use of my money?—many online donors are just acting expressively.”

In the presidential election, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg showed not once, but twice that money can only go so far. He spent $1 billion of his own money on his election bid but only managed to rank as high as fourth place for a short time. 

Once Bloomberg was out of the race, he spent another $100 million trying to help Joe Biden win key swing states Ohio, Florida, and Texas — all of which Biden ultimately lost to Donald Trump.

“The goal was to help elect Joe Biden president. We are well on the way to helping achieve that goal,” Bloomberg political adviser Howard Wolfson told the New York Post.

The pandemic further complicated things this year, forcing candidates to do more digital advertising and spend less time doing things like holding events and knocking on doors. As the campaign for 2022 starts to heat up later this year, election observers will be watching to see whether the trend of big money and far-away donations continues, or whether voters and candidates get back to basics and adopt a more locally-based, grassroots campaign strategy.


Grassroots Pulse covers public policy and political issues aimed at engaging highly-active policy makers, donors, and grassroots leaders at the forefront of the political process in America today.

Image Credit: Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash