Why Is the Cost of Running for Office Exploding?

By Peter Turchin November 26, 2013 10 Comments

The original text of the opinion piece on intraelite competition that I sent to Bloomberg Opinion grew to almost twice the length when it was finally published. The two editors kept asking me to expand on some points and to provide supplementary evidence on others. Not all of this ended up in the article. One thing they asked was whether it was literally true that competition for political office has intensified. It is, and since it did not get included in the Bloomberg article, I think it’s worth a separate blog to discuss it.

To remind you of the argument, something happened in the late 1970s in the USA (to be more specific, it was structural-demographic trend reversal; see the previous blog for a table of contents of blog posts, which explain various aspects of it). As a result, intraelite competition began increasing. A number of proxies support this conclusion (as was discussed in the Bloomberg article, see also the Aeon article). In particular, the number of wealthy individuals began increasing (to put it somewhat paradoxically, the 1 percent became the 3 percent). Second, more and more advanced degrees were granted, eventually many more than there were positions for. I focused on the law degrees, because obtaining a JD is one of the most common routes to the political office. But the same dynamic affected MBAs.


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And even MDs (despite the AMA’s efforts to limit the supply of MDs).

At the same time that the numbers of politically ambitious wealth-holders and politically ambitious JD-holders increased several-fold, the supply of top political positions has not changed. There are only 100 Senators and 435 Representatives in the US Congress. So the competition for these offices had to intensify.

And it did. There are several indicators that support this point of view. Let’s take a look at the following chart:


The Cost of Winning an Election to the House, 1986–2012; in thousands of inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars (Red Curve). The purple curve shows the total amount (in millions of 2012 dollars) spent by major party candidates. Source of data:  the Campaign Finance Institute.

Between 1990 and 2012 the amount spent by the winning candidate in House elections more than doubled (in real terms). The same trend held in the Senate.

This trend, of course, is widely known. Usually, however, it is just stated as given, without delving into causes driving this increase. One article I recently read suggested that this is due “to the 2010 landmark United States Supreme Court Case, Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission, in which the Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence federal elections.”

But the trend, as we can see in the chart, precedes the 2010 ruling by decades. To me the explanation is obvious. As the demand for a commodity increases, while the supply stayes fixed, the price of the commodity has to go up. This logic is implicit in the writings of Kevin Phillips, e.g. Wealth and Democracy.

Here are more data, this time from OpenSecrets.org. It shows the number of candidates (including the primaries) that ran for House and Senate seats:

year house senate both chambers millionaires
2000 1233 191 1424 ??
2002 1299 146 1445 32
2004 1212 189 1401 30
2006 1317 166 1483 42
2008 1377 168 1545 51
2010 1897 308 2205 58
2012 1711 251 1962 48

The elections of 2010 were particularly crowded. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of contenders for House grew by 54 percent, and for Senate by 61 percent.

Beginning in 2002 OpenSecrets.org also started keeping track of how many “millionaires” run for Congress (adding together the Senate and the House). They define millionaire candidates as those who spend at least half a million dollars of their own money on the campaign. According to their definition, betweem 2004 and 2010 the number of such millionaire candidates nearly doubled. (They use nominal dollars, but even if we adjust for inflation, the trend is hardly diminished. For example, if we use 2000 dollars, then the number of ‘millionaire candidates’ in 2012 would decrease from 48 to 45 – not nearly enough to explain the overall trend).

Note also that the number of candidates who actually run is an underestimate of demand for political office. As its price increases, a larger proportion of potential candidates are deterred from running.

In summary, the data trends are entirely consistent with the structural-demographic explanation. The growing cost of running for office is reflecting intensifying intraelite competition.

Published On: November 26, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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