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Grade 9-12

Money and Elections

Updated: February 23 2017,
Author: Brett Burkey

Students will be introduced to the sources of campaign war chests, learning about the recent court decisions that have allowed for the creation of "Super PACS" and 501 (c) (4) organizations. The exploration will turn to how a candidate raises resources and how spending has accelerated in recent election cycles. Finally, in an activity, the students will be assigned to groups and play the role of campaign strategists in one or the other major party. They will use an array of data, their understanding of the lesson's content, and a map of the United States to determine which states they will identify as safely in their camp, locked up by the opposition, or a battleground state worthy of resource deployment.


Money and elections have been uneasy bedfellows throughout the history of American politics as the power of the purse has been leveraged to influence election outcomes. While The Teapot Dome scandal and Watergate, for example, have led to restrictive reforms in campaign finance rules, recent Supreme Court decisions have erased these boundaries. This has lead to a dramatic rise in the quantity of money pouring into the latest election cycles. Citizens United v. FEC (Federal Election Commission) and McCutcheon v. FEC have equated political donations to protected speech and eliminated limits on how much one can contribute.


In the 2012 federal election cycle, a whopping $6.3 billion was spent on campaigning—twice the amount spent in 2000. A study by the Sunlight Foundation, an advocate for government transparency, found that a group of Americans comprising less than a tenth of one percent of the U.S. population accounted for 28% of all disclosed contributions throughout the 2012 election.


Despite this explosion of resources available to political candidates, the difficult question of where to spend it still remains. The number of voters grows consistently but the methods to reach them create the most confounding issues. As voters move gradually away from traditional media outlets to more contemporary ones, where are advertising dollars best spent? 


Demographic shifts require focus on Spanish language speakers and cable-cutting youth. Single issue voters embracing the Second Amendment or Marriage Equality have to be targeted. What states demand attention and what states can be ignored? Campaigns must weigh the benefits of allocating campaign funds to a state versus the costs of conducting the campaign. States with few electoral votes or states where a candidate has little chance of swaying voters to their campaign represent little benefit to a candidate and not worth the cost of precious campaign funds. On the other hand, states with many electoral votes whose voters can be swayed represent large benefits and are therefore worth the cost of campaigning.  

Learning Objectives

Be able to:

  • Explain how recent Supreme Court decisions have prompted a dramatic increase in the supply of new funding flowing into elections.
  • Discuss how recent changes in society and its relationship with technology have forced campaigns to alter how they approach the electorate.
  • Illustrate how the shifting demographic nature of the U.S. defines the constituencies that candidates and political parties solicit for votes.
  • Understand that presidential campaigns must allocate their spending based on the costs and potential benefits of campaigning in a particular state.

Resource List

  • PowerPoint Slides 2-15.
  • Activity 1: Define Your Typical Partisan Voter, one copy per student.
  • Activity 2: State Name Cards 1-5, cut into separate cards and give one set of ten to each group.
  • Activity 3: Campaign Expenditure, one copy per student.
  • Activity 4: State Data, 15 copies, three for each of the five groups.
  • Activity 5: U.S. Map, one copy per group.
  • Activity 6:  Suggested Answers, one copy or one copy per student if desired.
  • One red, blue and purple marker or crayon for each group.


  1. Begin the lesson with PowerPoint Slides 2 and 3. Proceed through each question as it is presented. Ask:

    • Do Americans have the right to express their political opinions? (The answer should be yes, though some students may question whether that is the case for all.)
    • Should people be limited to how often they express their political opinion? (The answer is no.)
    • Is the spoken word the only way to express political opinions? (No, possible answers might be through imagery, cartoons, sit-ins, boycotts, violence, music, and voting.)  
    • When an individual contributes money to a politician’s campaign, has an opinion been expressed? (Yes, the money is being given to one and not the others, indicating a favored candidate.)
    • Is money given to support a politician’s campaign a form of speech? (Accept any answer for now.)  
    • Should people be limited in the quantity of money contributed? (Answers will vary. Some might say no but others might say yes because we all don’t have the same amount of “speech” available to us.)
  2. Display Slides 4 and 5. Review the Supreme Court’s position on these questions by summarizing the opinions from two recent decisions that establish political contributions as a protected form of speech and lift the caps that used to limit the amount one could contribute.
  3. Display Slide 6. Describe the fundraising organizations that have formed in the wake of the court decisions and the thin veil of regulation that surrounds them. Display Slide 7, which provides the terms for the various types of contributions and describes the degree of transparency for each type of contribution.
  4. Display Slide 8, which shows how a small fraction of the U.S. electorate now provides a disproportionate amount of the known political contributions. Ask the students, “Does this reflect a free market for speech or do there seem to be significant barriers to entry?” (A possible answer might be “No, it seems that admission to this market comes with an impossibly high price tag for most people.”)
  5. Display Slide 9, which itemizes expenditures for the 2012 Obama campaign. This slide illustrates significant sums of money committed to bombarding voters with the candidate’s narrative. It also shows the greater attention being paid to non-traditional forms of media that are increasingly becoming the voters preferred mode for information gathering. Ask: “What benefit did President Obama anticipate gaining when his campaign increased the quantity of money spent on non-traditional media outlets?” (They felt the increased costs were warranted because there are a number of voters who disconnected from television and wouldn’t be reached unless these digital outlets were breached.)
  6. Display Slide 10, which indicates the dramatic explosion of campaign spending growth.  The purple line shows the equivalent value to the $92 million spent in the 1980 election when adjusting for inflation. The green line shows the actual amounts spent in each race.  Obviously, spending increases have been much higher than the rate of inflation. Comment to the students that despite the appearance of limitless campaign funding, decisions are still made on where to allocate funds and where spending would be fruitless. Ask: “Why would very little money be spent on the three biggest prizes—New York, California and Texas—in the electoral contest?” (The answer should be uncovered in the lesson, but the feeling is that no amount of money would break the pattern of partisanship longstanding in those states.)
  7. Display Slide 11, which conveys the color pallet used since the 2000 presidential election to define the voting habits of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia. Tell the students that the Red states have consistently voted Republican and the Blue states Democratic. Purple states have proven to be the ones up for grabs. Ask what color the state is that the students reside in?(Answers will vary, but will be revealed at the end of the activity.)
  8. Tell the students that they are now ready to analyze how campaigns might spend their money in different states based on data derived from the sources listed on the last slides in the PowerPoint presentation. Distribute a copy of Activity 1 to each student. Instruct them to keep a tally of the characteristics of a typical Democratic voter and a Republican one. Discuss Slide 12, which uses a broad brush stroke to differentiate the major party’s positions on a number of significant divisive issues. Remind the students that individual politicians’ own views may not match exactly with these generalizations.
  9. Discuss Slide 13, which generalizes the demographic groups that have been most consistent in their affiliation to the respective parties. Note to the students that these are generalizations based on percentages and that “individual results may vary.” Have students speculate on the other factors that might influence the type of voter they’ll become.(Answers will vary, of course, but it is an important exercise in helping the students grasp the influences and identities that shape voters.)
  10. Display Slide 14, which quantifies voter turnout among different demographic groups. Based on the information that students have compiled on Activity 1 and the voting likelihood expressed here, ask the following questions:

    • Which party seems to get the greater gains from voter turnout?(White older voters turnout in inordinate numbers which would seem to benefit the Republicans. Young voters and Hispanic voters have comparatively lower rates which would tend to impact the Democrats. Black voters have higher turnout numbers than all but they comprise only 13% of the overall votes cast in 2012. On the other hand, college-educated whites and women turn out in greater frequency and they tend to vote Democratic.)
    • Why is there a higher voter turnout in purple states than blue or red? (Less is pre-determined and voters may feel their voice could make a difference.)
  11. Display Slide 15, which illustrates the electoral prize both parties seek. With 538 electoral votes up for grabs, a simple majority of 270 is the magic number. Leave this map projected when the students begin the activity tomorrow.
  12. On day two, the class will begin the main activity. Divide the students into five equal-sized groups and arrange the room so the groups can huddle up. Give each group a set of the ten state name cards from Activity 2 either as a single sheet or cut up individually. You may give the groups a different set or if you want to focus on one set of states, give each group the same set. Note: these states have been purposely grouped together so they must be distributed intact. Each set is a mix of red, blue, and purple states.  
  13. Give each student a copy of Activity 3 titled “Campaign Expenditure.” Give each group a copy of the U.S. map and a blue, red, and purple marker. 
  14. Give each group at least three copies of the “State Data” table in Activity 4 to share.  Students can be given the data for all states or just the data for the states a group is considering.
  15. Give each group the role of either a Democratic or Republican strategist. Tell the students they are now ready to capitalize on their new understanding of the characteristics of a Republican and Democratic voter. Tell the students that they will be deciding on which states they should be focusing their campaign dollars based on the expected benefits and costs of campaigning in a state. Ask the students:

    • What is the benefit to the presidential candidate of winning a state? (The electoral votes.)
    • Why do candidates not spend time campaigning in states in which they are 40% points behind in the polls? (The expected benefit of spending money in a state that the candidate has little chance of winning is low.)
    • Why do candidates need to look at the costs of campaigning in states? (States with higher advertising costs or that are difficult to reach have higher campaign costs and so may not be worth campaigning if the expected costs are greater than the expected benefits of winning the states.)
    • Why can’t candidates spend a lot of money in every state? (Despite an increase in campaign contributions in presidential elections, candidates can and do run short of funds and must make decisions based on costs and benefits.)
  16. Tell the students to look over the data sheets connected to their ten states. Together with their group members they should label each of the assigned states a color (red, blue or purple) in the column titled “Color.”  In the column titled “Analysis: Why that Color?,” the students should justify their choices by sighting the elements within the state that define the majority of voters. In the column titled “Campaign?,” the group should decide whether it would be cost-effective for their candidate to campaign in each of the states assigned based on the pre-determined nature of voting there or the uncertainty that may loom. Have students indicate their preferences by allotting a percentage of the campaign budget to each of the ten states being analyzed. In the “Campaign” column the student should write the percentage so that when the activity is complete, the column adds up to 100%. (Purple states will be the most competitive and draw the larger shares, while states that have been historically daunting or friendly will draw very small amounts, if any.) Tell each group to complete the “Campaign Expenditure” table and color in their states on the map with the color they’ve designated. 
  17. After 20-25 minutes, have each group share what they’ve discovered with the rest of the class. Have the students identify the states they believe to be red, blue, or purple, and show where they decided to focus their efforts. Possible answers for the color of the states are as follows:

    • Group 1- Red States are Arkansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Texas. Blue States are California, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont. Purple States are New Hampshire and New Mexico.
    • Group 2- Red States are Arizona, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Blue States are Connecticut, Maryland, New York, and Washington. Purple States are Indiana and Iowa.
    • Group 3- Red States are Alaska, Kansas, Montana, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Blue States are Delaware, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Purple States are Colorado and Virginia.
    • Group 4- Red States are Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Blue States are Hawaii, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Purple States are Florida and Ohio.
    • Group 5- Red States are Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah. Blue States are Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia (omitted because of inconsistent data reporting). Purple States are Nevada and North Carolina.
  18. Activity 6 provides a summary of the reasons. The activity can be handed out or you can use it in debriefing the activity. Debrief the activity by asking the students the following questions:

    • What were the key data points often cited that led to the conclusion that a state is red? (Low percentages of minorities, same-sex marriage support, taxes, and abortion providers. High percentages of gun ownership, rural communities, weekly religious service attendance, elderly people and non-college educated whites.) 
    • What were the key data points often cited that led to the conclusion that a state is blue?  (High percentages of minorities, college educated people, union membership, abortion providers, same sex marriage support, and taxes. Low percentages of gun ownership, weekly service attendance, and non-college educated whites.) 
    • What is the color of our state and are the characteristics we interpreted from the data table the way in which you see our state? (Answers will vary.)
    • What states will see the most campaigning in the fall run-up to the election and will our state be one of them? (Purple states represent higher potential benefits of campaigning for candidates. Larger purple states represent the biggest prizes and so may attract the most funding. The second answer will vary.)
    • While weighing the cost of allocating your candidate’s campaign dollars to the states analyzed, what challenges did you face in finally committing those funds? (The purple states warrant a lot of attention, but the difficulty resided in knowing whether there was benefit in allocating scarce dollars in states that seem already determined by history. Using funds in those states means reducing my candidates exposure in the most critical ones.)


  1. Review the fundamental parts of this lesson.

    • The Supreme Court has decided that campaign contributions are a form of speech that can be exercised to the limits of an individual’s resources. 
    • This has led to an unprecedented influx of campaign financial support flowing to the candidates from a microscopic segment of the voting public. 
    • Candidates have created funnels for those funds attracting money with the source and the motive often invisible.
    • Candidates pay attention to demographics to decide where races are likely to be competitive.
    • Candidate must decide, based on the costs and perceived benefits, in which states to spend the bulk of their campaign funds. 


Citizens United-

Super PACS and Dark Money-

1 percent of the 1 percent-

Cost of the 2012 election-

How Candidates spent their $1 billion-

Ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans-

Party Affiliations-

Party identification by state-

Two Americas-

Red and Blue Shifts in 2012-

Breakdown of demographic groups-

Changing demographics-

Changing demographics in swing states-

Gun ownership by state-

Frequency of church attendance by state-

Religious divergence in the parties-

Positions on same-sex marriage by state-

Abortion providers by state-

Voter turnout by state-

Number of senior citizens by state-

Union membership by state-

Rural communities by state-


Constructed Response Questions

  1. Do you believe that monetary contributions to a politician’s campaign should be protected speech similar to editorials and protests?
    (Possible answers might include: Yes, because it is simply an expression of favoritism toward a candidate like a bumper sticker or election banner in the front yard. Giving money is voicing support for the candidate’s values being carried to office. No, because we all don’t have the same amount of money at our disposal so we can’t all speak at the same volume. Some people will get the attention and the vast number of voters will be ignored.)
  2. How has campaigning for the presidency changed in the way candidates reach potential voters?
    (Possible answers might be that while candidates used to campaign off the back of a caravanning train, the electronic media is now the conduit. But television is diminishing in its role so candidates need to be savvy when it comes to delivering messages on social media. As a result, more of a candidate’s budget than ever is dedicated to reaching people on mobile devices and through electronic communities.)
  3. What are some of the elements that all of the purple (swing) states seem to have in common?
    (Possible answers include that they have a much more heterogeneous population than their red and blue counterparts. There is a mix of old and young, white and non-white, rural and urban, religious and secular. Many of them are also experiencing transitions. North Carolina is attracting young, college-educated and upwardly mobile people to a state that used to be very rural and traditional. The explosion of cities like Las Vegas and Atlanta are bringing an urban flavor to their states. Florida attracts people from senior, ethnic, young, rural and urban sectors, so it is a natural battleground.)
  4. Despite what seems to be unlimited funds, what decisions do presidential candidates need to make in the allocation of those funds?
    (Possible answer: While money may seem plentiful, time is not and candidates need to invest their resources where the pay-off will be the biggest. They must also be conscious of their opponents desire to possess the same thing they covet and be nimble to respond to any attack. A recent example in the 2004 campaign was John Kerry’s missteps in handling his accusers in the “Swift Boat” allegations. While the prize remains the same, the tactics to attain it are constantly evolving. For example, the release of the crude YouTube video sending Mitt Romney’s message about the “47%” to the world might have changed an election.)



  1. Which two features seem to be most indicative of a red state?

    1. College-educated whites and 2nd Amendment support.
    2. (A large senior population and a frequency of attending worship.)
    3. A large Asian-American population and a lack of favor for same-sex marriage.
    4. States where the taxes are low and a large number of Hispanic-Americans.
  2. Which two features seem to be most indicative of a blue state?

    1. A significant number of non-college educated whites living in rural communities.
    2. A low number of minority voters and a state where taxes are above the national average.
    3. (A significant number of young, upwardly mobile workers and a large union presence.)
    4. A location in the “Confederate” South and lawmakers who consistently try to restrict a woman’s right to choose.
  3. Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout in the nation because

    1. Hawaiians are too busy surfing to get to the polls.
    2. Hawaiians are angry that very few candidates ever campaign in their state.
    3. the issues that trouble Hawaiians are different from the rest of the nation.
    4. (by the time Hawaiians vote, national election results have already been determined.)
  4. A state that is likely to attract more campaigning from candidates is one

    1. that has few electoral votes.
    2. where advertising markets are costly.
    3. that is located further away from other population centers.
    4. (where the candidates are nearly tied in the polls.)