One of the most durable beliefs about politics is that the cost of campaigning for major offices–particularly the presidency–has been going straight up since forever, and will continue to do so perpetually unless the Supreme Court can be convinced to reverse decisions effectively prohibiting campaign finance reform.
Color me fully in the forlorn camp of campaign finance reform supporters. But the impression of ever-rising campaign costs does not seem to be strictly accurate if adjustments are made for inflation and population expansion. Check out the analysis at Enik Rising of dollars spent for vote cast (in constant dollars) in presidential elections dating back all the way to 1860. Turns out the most expensive race ever according to that measurement is the McKinley-Bryan contest of 1896 (a historic tilt in many respects; McKinley may have raised have raised the bar permanently in terms of fundraising, but Bryan began the “modern” practice of active campaigning around the country).
2008 comes in at the second-most-expensive race ever, and 2004 is fourth (with 1968 ranking third), so it’s not as though contemporary campaigns are actually getting cheaper. The estimates at Enik Rising also don’t include “outside” (non-candidate) spending, which will clearly be a huge factor in 2012. But it’s good to get a little perspective on how campaign costs have waxed and waned over the decades if you hold the variables constant.