To win elections, you need a lot of money. Here's what you need to know.

Television ads, logos, stickers, staplers, and stands. All of these are necessary for conducting political campaigns, and they all cost money.

Fundraising is one of the key components of political campaigns. Candidates spend significant time communicating with donors and mobilizing local fundraising efforts to support their campaigns.

"Funding political campaigns matters," said Michael Kang, a law professor at Northwestern University who specializes in campaign finance, among other things. "It's the way candidates finance their work and communication with voters."

And the dollars add up. According to OpenSecrets, political spending exceeded $14 billion in the 2020 elections, doubling the spending in the 2016 presidential elections, making it the most expensive election cycle.

"We just see money in politics growing every year," said Shana Portes, Senior Counsel for Campaign Finance at the Campaign Legal Center. "There are new technological methods, especially on the internet and digital platforms, that campaigns want to have the ability to spend a lot of money on to reach voters and target their messages through micro-targeting."

According to Kang, a significant portion of the expenses goes towards media advertising. It's a race to the top.

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

Why raise money?

Advertising campaigns that convey a candidate's message to voters across various media platforms require funding for production and distribution.

"There's not much you can do without paying for one form of advertising or another, whether it's television, radio, print, or the internet. All of these things require money and are very expensive," explained Kang.

But he also said there are many other expenses beyond working with the media, such as conducting public opinion polls, hiring campaign staff, and printing signs and posters.

For the Republican contest, an additional incentive comes from the Republican National Committee, which has set a threshold of a minimum number of unique donors as one of the criteria for participation in debates. So, candidates for the 2024 elections have already shown creativity.

Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson barely qualified for the first Republican presidential debates. But he did so with the help of college students, according to POLITICO.

Current Republican Party leader Donald Trump used his recent legal troubles as a way to solicit financial support, sending out emails and text messages asking for donations after several indictments and court appearances. He even sells merchandise with his photo.

Conversely, Biden, who is the Democratic Party's favorite, can boast of high fundraising volumes in the first two quarters compared to his Republican rivals, who are conducting more traditional fundraising operations.

What is the FEC?

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the only federal agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws.

There are six members of the FEC, and by law, no more than three can be from one political party. Ideally, decisions are made by a bipartisan commission, as it takes four people to make a decision.

FEC members oversee who spends money and how they spend it, ensuring that political committees and candidates file accurate and complete reports, which are later published by the FEC, and they investigate allegations of illegal activity.

"But in practice, especially in recent years, this has led to a lot of deadlocks, a lot of split decisions where the three Democratic-appointed members of the commission and the three Republican-appointed members of the commission disagree," said Portes, adding that the 3-3 split means no penalty is applied to the individual accused of violating the law. "And when that happens, the law goes unenforced."

Portes said this has also deprived the FEC of the ability to give guidance to those seeking advice on how best to comply with the law.

"A political committee or a campaign can go to the Federal Election Commission and ask for what's called an advisory opinion, essentially saying, 'I want to do X thing. Is that okay?'" Portes explained. The FEC writes an opinion saying "yes" or "no" and why. "But when it's a 3-3 split, the commission says there's nothing, no opinion is issued."

Commission members told lawmakers in Congress that, despite partisan disagreements, they reached a consensus on 90% of enforcement matters since January 2021. But during hearings last month, lawmakers argued that it pertains to higher-level issues, such as enforcement actions related to Trump, the partisan divide persists.