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It takes lots of money to win elections. Here's what you need to know

This photo illustration created in Washington, DC shows the mugshot of former President Donald Trump next to a website called Trump Save America JFC, a joint fundraising committee on behalf of Donald J. Trump for President 2024, which is selling merchandise bearing his mugshot.
Stefani Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
This photo illustration created in Washington, DC shows the mugshot of former President Donald Trump next to a website called Trump Save America JFC, a joint fundraising committee on behalf of Donald J. Trump for President 2024, which is selling merchandise bearing his mugshot.

Television ads, logos, stickers, staplers and staffers. They are all needed to run political campaigns. And they all cost money.

Fundraising is one of the key components of political campaigns. Candidates spend a significant period of time talking to donors and mobilizing grassroots donations in order to keep their campaigns alive.

"Campaign finance matters," said Michael Kang, law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in campaign finance, among other matters. "It's the way that candidates fund their outreach and messaging to voters."

And the dollars add up. In the 2020 election, political spending topped $14 billion, according to OpenSecrets, doubling what was spent in the 2016 presidential election, making it the most expensive election cycle.

"We just see money in politics growing every year," said Shanna Ports, senior legal counsel for campaign finance at Campaign Legal Center. "There are new methods of technology, especially around the internet and digital platforms that campaigns want to be able to spend a lot of money on to reach voters and to micro-target people with their messages."

Media advertising accounts for a large part of spending, according to Kang. It's a race to the top.

"That's really what drives up the costs and the fact that everyone's pretty well funded and spends a lot of time fundraising," Kang said. "So you have to keep up with your opposition to get your message out."

A worker sets up signs at the Dallas County Fairgrounds for a rally with Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump on October 16, 2023 in Adel, Iowa.
Scott Olson / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A worker sets up signs at the Dallas County Fairgrounds for a rally with Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump on Oct. 16 in Adel, Iowa.

Why raise money?

The advertisements that propel a candidate's message to voters on various media platforms take money to produce and to run.

"There's only so much you can do without paying for some sort of advertising, whether it's TV, radio, print, the internet. All of those things require money and they're very expensive," Kang explained.

But he said there are also plenty of other expenses that don't go to media outreach such as paying for pollsters, hiring campaign staff and printing yard signs and posters.

For the Republican contest there is added incentive from the Republican National Committee, which has set thresholds for a minimum number of unique donors as one of the metrics for qualifying for the debates. So, candidates for the 2024 election cycle have already gotten creative.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson barely qualified for the first GOP presidential debate. But he did, thanks to the help of college students, according to POLITICO.

Current GOP front-runner Donald Trump has used his recent legal troubles as a way to garner financial support, sending out emails and texts requesting donations following several indictments and court appearances. He is even selling merch with his own mug shot.

Conversely, Biden, who is the Democratic front-runner, has boasted high fundraising totals in the first two quarters compared to his GOP rivals, running a more traditional fundraising operation.

President Joe Biden greets DNC staff and volunteers after speaking at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee October 24, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden greets Democratic National Committee staff and volunteers after speaking at DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 24.

What is the FEC?

The Federal Election Commission is the sole federal agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws.

There are six FEC commissioners and, according to law, no more than three can be from the same political party. Ideally, this makes decisions from the commission bipartisan because it takes four to make a decision.

The commissioners oversee who is spending money and how, ensuring political committees and candidates are filing accurate and complete reports which are later posted by the FEC, and they investigate allegations of illegal activity.

"But in practice, especially in recent years, that has been resulting in a lot of stalemates, a lot of split decisions, where the three Democratically appointed commissioners, three Republican-appointed commissioners disagree," Ports said, adding that a 3-3 split means no penalty is assessed to someone who is alleged to have broken the law. "And when that happens, the law doesn't get enforced."

It has also stalled the FEC's ability to issue guidance to those asking how to best follow the law, Ports said.

"A political committee or a campaign can come to the FEC and ask for what's called an advisory opinion where it basically will say, 'I want to do X thing. Is that OK?'" Ports said. The FEC writes an opinion saying yes or no and why. "But when there's a 3-to-3 split, the commission says there's nothing, there's no opinion rendered."

Commissioners have argued before lawmakers in Congress that despite the partisan divides, it has reached a consensus on 90% of enforcement matters since January 2021. But lawmakers during a hearing last month said that on higher level issues, such as enforcement allegations related to Trump, partisan splits persist.

Chair of the Federal Election Commission Dara Lindenbaum, center, listens during a Federal Election Commission public meeting on whether it should regulate the use of AI-generated political campaign advertisements, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Washington.
Stephanie Scarbrough / AP
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AP
Chair of the Federal Election Commission Dara Lindenbaum, center, listens during an Aug. 10 FEC public meeting on whether it should regulate the use of AI-generated political campaign advertisements.

Ins and outs of the law

Federal laws apply to those running for federal office. But each state has its own set of laws for those running in elections within each state.

These laws can govern contribution limits, or how much an entity looking to give can give.

They also govern the disclosure of the money, meaning candidates or advertisers have to report how much they have received and from who.

But one thing that does hold true across all jurisdictions: people can't be stopped from spending.

The Supreme Court in 2010 decided that political action committees are able to take unlimited contributions from donors, except foreign nationals and federal contractors. Widely known as the Citizens United decision, it also allowed corporations and nonprofits to spend money on political campaigns and explicitly back a candidate as long as they don't directly coordinate with candidates.

Ports and Kang say that this decision led to the rise of the use of political action committees.

What are PACs and super PACs?

A political action committee, or PAC, is organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. PACs tend to represent specific interests such as business, unions or ideologies.

"The basic difference is that super PACs engage only in independent expenditures. That is, they don't give money to candidates or to parties, and they don't coordinate with parties or candidates in how they use their money," Kang said. "That distinction allows them to raise money without contribution limits. And so that's what makes them super."

In 2022 there were 2,476 super PACs formed by a wide variety of interests. Together they raised over $2.7 billion and spent over $1.3 billion.

PACs, meanwhile, are subject to contribution limits and can coordinate with candidates. Often, presidential candidates will announce super PACs related to their individual ideology before announcing they are jumping into the race.

Does money increase the chances of a win?

Fundraising is a contributor to a campaign's success, said Kang, but so are other issues like candidate quality.

"Usually if you're spending a lot of money, often the opponent is also spending a lot of money and they kind of cancel out," Kang said. "That's not to say that having money is not important or doesn't help you win, because if the opponent is spending a lot of money, you're better off spending a lot of money too."

For presidential elections, candidates have to meet deadlines for their reporting. During presidential election years, such as 2024, candidates will have to file each month. The first report of the year will include all of 2023 fundraising and it is due Jan. 31, 2024.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.