Campaign Budgeting 101: How Much Does It Cost to Run for Public Office?

crunching the numbers for your campaign budget running for public office

How much does it cost to run for public office?

How much money should you expect to raise through your fundraising efforts?  What should the ‘total’ line on your campaign budget look like?

Like every other website that attempts to answer this question, I’m going to say “it depends.”  But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop there.  And I’m not going to give you some crap answer like “the average cost of a campaign is $3 per voter.”  Because there are extremes at both ends of those numbers that throw the real ‘averages’ way off.

Compare Your Election to Past Elections

Let’s start with a generic example campaign.  Let’s say Joe is running for state representative and lives in a ‘typical American’ town, not really close to a big city and yet not totally in the sticks either, and he’s in a state that isn’t particularly high-priced to exist in.

The first thing Joe needs to do to determine an approximate total budget number is look at his state’s campaign finance website, where he can find the finance reports for anyone who’s ever run for state representative in and around his district before.

Some candidates in some districts will run and handily win a similar race for less than $5,000 because there was no opponent or the district was so heavily skewed Republican that the Democrat didn’t have a chance anyway.

Some candidates will have spent $200,000 on the exact same sort of race, but that was influenced by a sudden uptick in state or national interest in the campaign – perhaps that particular election was at a time when the change of a single seat would affect a change in control of the state house, and it was a re-districting year in which whomever controlled the house controlled the district lines as well.  Or maybe there was a super-hot issue coming into play after the elections and national level interest groups were pumping campaign cash into the candidate’s coffers, totally bloating the realistic number.

Joe has to look at all these numbers within the context of the time and circumstances of the elections.  Chances are if there is an extreme low or high amount spent in a particular campaign, it will be an anomaly, and Joe should easily find a ‘trend’ for what elections like his ‘typically’ cost.

Establish A Total Budget Baseline to Start From

Let’s assume Joe, however, has an opponent in a fairly evenly split district, but it isn’t getting any ‘special’ attention from high-level outsiders just yet.  Given all of the conditions we’ve set so far, I’d ‘guesstimate’ that Joe could reasonably use $50,000 as his base line total.

Now, does that mean that the final version of Joe’s budget will be $50,000, not a penny more, not a penny less?  Not at all!  This is only a starting point.  It’s a place for you to begin to breakdown your campaign budget into parts in order to ascertain how much you should reasonably spend in each area.  All too often I see candidates and campaign treasurers looking at their final baseline numbers and just assuming that they can spend a little extra here, without realizing that in doing so, they are shorting another aspect of the campaign.  First, you must find a ceiling for the total budget with which to limit yourself.  Then, break that number down into each category and assign a hard limit for each of those as well.  No money should be shifted from one to another unless you’ve already underspent significantly.

In actuality, I have seen races fitting this description spending anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 (and the main difference there is that TV production and ad-buying are included in the higher number).

Once you’ve studied your local campaign finance history and  determined your reasonable average, we can move on to the next step, which is breaking that total budget number down into categories and figuring out just what you need to buy.

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2 thoughts on “Campaign Budgeting 101: How Much Does It Cost to Run for Public Office?

    • Thanks for the feedback! You should check out the Campaign Budgeting 101 series and see if that breaks it down better for you – there’s also a pretty detailed example budget in the Campaign Planbook :) If you have a specific question, email me!

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