Was GOP primary spending against Trump really that ‘yuge’?

(Graphic credit: The Sunlight Foundation)

We are constantly asking ourselves: How much of a role does big money play in our elections? The numbers can sometimes get overwhelming and difficult to put in perspective, especially when you’re describing millions, if not billions, of dollars spent.

In short, it really depends on your definition of “big” money.

The Trump campaign has decried the “millions” spent against it. Just this week, Ivanka Trump defended her dad’s campaign style, saying, “He was running against 17 people, and they were spending tens of millions of dollars in negative advertising, and hitting him, so he was hitting back.”

But some perspective to that statement: Over the course of the primary, conservative outside groups spent at least $42.7 million against Trump. This is according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission data compiled as of May 12 by the Center for Responsive Politics.

That number may seem like a lot, and it is — but not compared to the high level of spending that happened in previous elections. When the GOP’s vast network of supportive groups really gets going, the spending has the potential to dwarf a candidate or cause.

GOP-aligned super PACs and dark money groups topped $89 million in spending in just five Senate races, nearly double the amount spent against Trump so far this cycle. Altogether, the top three 2014 Senate races alone totaled $59 million in outside spending that opposed Democratic Senate candidates. And in 2012, outside groups spent $333 million attacking then-Democratic candidate Barack Obama. In comparison, outside groups dropped $95 million attacking Mitt Romney.

And many of the GOP’s biggest players still haven’t shown their hands yet: Over the course of the primary, some big names known for supporting conservative outside groups — like Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers — have remained on the sidelines so far.

As of this post, there have been 49 presidential primaries or caucuses held so far. That means conservative outside groups have spent a total of $877,000 per contest against Trump; compare that to the average outside spending against Democrats in the top five Senate races in 2014, nearly $18 million per race. Obviously, this isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but worth noting that in the current post-Citizens United environment, $42.7 million can seem like just a drop in the bucket.

Outside spending against 2014 Democratic Senate candidates:
State Amount
Colorado $21.8 million opposing Mark Udall
North Carolina $20.4 million opposing Kay Hagan
Iowa $18.4 million opposing Bruce Braley
Kentucky $17 million opposing Alison Lundergan Grimes
Alaska $13.4 million opposing Mark Begich
Arkansas $12.8 million opposing Mark Pryor
Georgia $11.5 million opposing Michelle Nunn
Louisiana $11.4 million opposing Mary Landrieu
New Hampshire $10 million opposing Jeanne Shaheen
Michigan $7 million opposing Gary Peters