If you click over to Opensecrets.org, you might see this little promo:
click it, and they say:
For the first time ever in U.S. history, the candidates for president have raised more than $1 billion. To find out where all this money is coming from, click on the candidates' names below and explore the options to the left.[...]
Never mind that the figures don't include September's haul, the problem here is the pervasive economic sin of doing absolute value comparisons between eras.
It's the same silly reason that All Time Box Office lists like this one make it appear that Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean did better at the box office than E.T. or Gone With The Wind. It's easy to top the list with the same number of ticket sales at say $14/person versus the $2-4 it probably cost to see a movie in 1982. I'm pretty sure the concept of inflation is now considered common knowledge so I think it's time we stop pretending it doesn't exist.
Some context inside on past election spending in context.
|From Conscience of a Liberal (2007), pp22-23, while explaining the conservative Republican dominance of the Presidency from the end of the Civil War to basically FDR, Krugman reveals:
Then there was the matter of campaign finance, whose force was most vividly illustrated in the 1896 election, arguably the only time between the Civil War and 1932 that a challenger to the country's ruling economic elite had a serious chance of winning the White House. Fearful of what William Jennings Bryan might do, the wealthy didn't crucify him on a cross of gold--they buried him under a mountain of the stuff. William McKinley's 1896 campaign spent $3.35 million, almost twice as much s the Republicans had spent in 1892, and five times what Bryan had at his disposal. And bear in mind that in 1896 three million dollars was a lot of money: As a percentage of gross domestic product, it was the equivalent of more than $3 billion today, five times what the Bush campaign spent in 2004. The financial disparity between the parties in 1896 was exceptional, but the Republicans normally had a large financial advantage. The only times the Democrats were more or less financially competitive between the Civil War and Woodrow Wilson's election in 1912 were in 1876, an election in which the Democrat Samuel Tilden actually won the popular vote (and essentially had the electoral vote stolen, in a deal in which Rutherford B. Hayes got the White House in return for his promise to withdraw federal troops from the South), and in Grover Cleveland's two victories in 1884 and 1892. Not coincidentally Tilden and Cleveland were Bourbon Democrats. When the Democratic Party nominated someone who wasn't a Bourbon, it was consistently outspent about three to one.
Krugman doesn't say if that is the most expensive election ever, but if it isn't, it's got to be in the top few. And that $3.3M was just the Republicans, this current election's $1B is all candidates from both parties (including Primaries I think, since the chart they show doesn't add up to $1B, even if you include McCain and Obama's September results).
Why This Matters
First off, this is part of the unnecessary and erroneous oversimplification of economic concepts in the discourse. And I'm not picking on Opensecrets.org here, there are other examples of this, and it the absolute cost of the 2004 election was also a subject of breathless wonder. Calculating the relative values between different eras may not be trivial for non-economists, but the media need to start doing it more (and I expect there is software for this anyway). We need smarter economics from our leaders, and part of getting there is not dumbing down the economic discourse to the point where it actually becomes objectively wrong. As Einstein supposedly said "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Secondly, with McCain already talking about campaign finance reform after Obama's $150M September, this notion that election spending is "out of control" will of course be abused by Republicans to push for "reform" crafted to hurt Democratic fund raising. Obama is doing spectacularly with the small dollar donors and it's great to see, but the plutocrats of the gilded age have him beat. And they might have beat their old record this time if not for the donation limits which I presume did not exist in 1896.
Finally, some in the netroots think campaign finance limits achieve nothing since the rich have various other ways of using their money to achieve political ends, but I say this stands in contrast to that idea. The Scaife types can fund foundations and think-tanks, but I suspect just straight out buying elections à la 1896 is probably easier and more appealing to the kleptocrats. The laws may not achieve their ideal desired end, but even blunting the ability of billionaires to drown out more populist politicians is worth doing.