By Michael Scherer
October 23, 2014

The NBC affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, added an hour to its nightly newscast this year to profit from all the political ads ahead of the Nov. 4 midterm elections, but demand was still too great. “There is only so much inventory I have,” explains WHO-TV station manager Dale Woods. It is the same in tight races all across the country. Nearly bottomless campaign and super-PAC bank accounts have been unloaded on airtime, mailings and get-out-the-vote efforts. And in recent years, the spending growth has accelerated.

Since the mid-1980s, the amount dumped on elections by campaigns and outside groups, as measured by the Federal Election Commission, has grown faster than even the alarming increases in the costs of health care and private college tuition. The reasons, say political scientists, include growth in the national economy, the razor-thin margin determining congressional control and changes to campaign-finance rules. Expect the trend to continue. Senate races in North Carolina and Kentucky this year could cost more than $100 million, and the estimated spending on TV ads in Alaska and Iowa already tops $11 per eligible voter.

THE INCREASE IN SPENDING ON POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS HAS OUTPACED THAT OF OTHER ECONOMIC METRICS SINCE 1984

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act improves tracking of outside spending

Court rulings allow for unlimited spending on elections by outside groups

1984

’86

’88

’90

’92

’94

’96

’98

2000

’02

’04

’06

’08

’10

’12

0

500%

+555%

POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS

1984 $400 million

2012 $2.6 billion

400%

+425%

HEALTH CARE

’84 $1,700 (per person)

’12 $8,900

+311%

PRIVATE COLLEGE TUITION

’84 $8,200

’12 $33,700

200%

+308%

GDP

’84 $3.9 trillion

’12 $16.0 trillion

100%

+128%

MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME

’84 $22,400

’12 $51,000

BARRIER BREAKERS

JIM HUNT (D)

JESSE HELMS (R)

$28 MILLION

Helms defeated North Carolina Governor Hunt in a landmark Southern slugfest, at the time the most expensive Senate contest ever staged.

HILLARY CLINTON (D)

RICK LAZIO (R)

$98 MILLION

The former First Lady attracted huge sums to the race to succeed New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She won easily.

2014

KAY HAGAN (D)

THOM TILLIS (R)

$100 MILLION+

This tight North Carolina race, which could help determine control of the Senate, is on track to set a new spending record.

Sources: Federal Election Commission; Center for Responsive Politics; Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; U.S. Census Bureau; St. Louis Fed; National Center for Education Statistics

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the November 03, 2014 issue of TIME.

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