Republicans raise nearly $5 billion to elect the President — in 1896.

QUESTION: In 1896 the McKinley presidential campaign spent at least $3.5 million. In 2016, Trump and Clinton spent about 2.4 billion. What calculation would you use–purchasing power, size of economy–to determine which was the most expensive campaign?

ANSWER:  To start with, the $3.5 million was only what the campaign raised. One of McKinley’s biographies quoted in Wikipedia reports that by including fundraising by state and local committees,  “Estimates of what Republicans may have raised in total have ranged as high as $16.5 million.” As an aside, J.D. Rockefeller himself donated $25,000, a relative income value of about $7 million today.

McKinley ran the campaign from his front porch in Canton, Ohio; he did not go to rallies or take whistle-stop train trips. Much of the money was spent on printing pamphlets and hiring hundreds of stump speakers to campaign on his behalf. We can think of all these stump speakers as the 1896 version of today’s TV ads. (At least then you could choose not to go hear them instead of having them in your living room 24 hours a day.)

The relative value of $3.5 million today using the CPI index is $108 million; for $16.5 million, it is $509 million. If campaigns then and now spent most of their money on printing, then that would be a reasonable measure, although looking at relative printing costs would be better. Printing, however, is a very small cost of campaigns today.

Today’s campaigns pay millions for ads on TV and social media as well as rallies and personal appearances. I am going to guess that TV ad rates are proportional to the cost of producing them and that cost is proportional to the skilled wage. In 1896, the campaign was spending large amounts hiring stump speakers and their cost would also be proportional to the skilled wage. So if we look at the relative values of $3.5 million and $16.5 million using the production worker compensation index, we get totals of $877 million and $4.7 billion, respectively.

We do not know how state and local Republican committees spent their funds; it could have been support for McKinley or candidates for other offices. In any event, we have that the McKinley presidential campaign raised close to a relative worth today of nearly $5 billion for the 1896 election.