Planning a political campaign can be both exciting and challenging. One of the first questions you’re likely to ask is, “How much money do I need?”
That answer, unfortunately, is: “It depends.”
Every candidate must develop a robust political campaign budgeting plan. You need a solid grasp of campaign finance rules and your local election spending laws. This can make the difference between a well-funded campaign and one that struggles just to make it to election day.
The amount of money your campaign needs depends on various factors. Here’s a basic guide through the budgeting process for local political campaigns.
How Much Did Previous Elections Cost?
One invaluable resource for understanding the financial landscape of your local campaign is to examine the financial records of past elections for the same position. This will give you real-world insights into what successful candidates have spent in the past.
Take a look at the spending habits of incumbents as well as their challengers. Did the incumbent spend significantly more or less than their challengers? What was the success rate of candidates who spent more or less money?
You can access financial information on past elections through several sources:
- Local Election Authority: Your local election authority or county clerk’s office responsible for overseeing elections often maintains records of campaign finance reports filed by candidates and committees for previous elections. They can provide you with access to these reports or guide you on where to find them.
- Online Databases: Many local governments and election authorities maintain online databases where you can search for campaign finance reports and contributions.
- State Election Commission: Some state-level election commissions or boards may maintain central databases of local campaign finance records.
- Local Newspapers and Media: Local newspapers and media outlets may have covered campaign spending during previous elections. You can search their archives for information.
- Political Parties: Your local political party may have historical data on campaign spending in your area.
- Local Campaign Consultants or Advisors: Local campaign consultants or advisors with experience in your area may also have access to historical finance data or can help you find this information.
By studying past campaigns for the office you seek, you can determine any relationship between money spent and electoral success. For example, in a recent mayoral race in Austin, Texas, the winning campaign’s budget analysis revealed that allocation towards social media engagement raised more donor contributions when compared to traditional mailers.
The amount you will need to spend on outreach will vary, as the size of your city or a growing electorate can impact your costs. Running TV ads, cable ads, or billboards in New York City will cost much more than in Marrero, Louisiana.
And don’t forget personal expenses. And we’re not just talking about personal in-kind donations. As a candidate or staff member, you’ll be spending plenty of personal time and effort on the campaign trail. You may not be able to quantify that into dollars, but there is a personal cost.
Our clients have campaign budgets that range from almost nothing to tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, many start running for office without first having a clear idea of the resources required to get elected.
Determining Your Campaign Budget:
Once you have an idea of how much money you’ll need, you’ll want to set a campaign budget. If you’re running for council in a small town, your budget might be around $2,500. But a countywide campaign might require $20,000 or more.
Let’s break down the major categories of campaign expenses and give you a clear idea of what to expect.
Campaign staff plays a vital role in the success of your local campaign. They include a Campaign Manager, Field Organizer, Communications Director, Fundraising Coordinator, Volunteers, and Consultants. In smaller campaigns, consultant roles are typically filled by volunteers with specific expertise.
Of course, you’ll also need a Campaign Treasurer. This is a critical staff role. The treasurer is responsible for tracking expenses and donations, keeping accurate financial records, managing the campaign budget and bank accounts. They are also responsible for filing financial reports in compliance with campaign finance laws. In short, a treasurer manages and documents all the financial activities.
The size and scale of your campaign will determine your staffing needs. Smaller local campaigns can be successful with a team of dedicated volunteers. Larger campaigns may require more specialized roles and, possibly, paid staff members.
A robust online presence is essential for reaching and engaging voters effectively. Here’s what you’ll need to establish a digital foothold:
- Campaign Website
- Online Donation Platform
- Email Marketing
- Social Media Presence
- Online Advertising
- Text Messaging Campaign
- Analytics and Tracking
- A Content Strategy
You’ll need an online presence to help communicate your message effectively. Some candidates may not choose to have a more limited digital presence, and that’s okay. You should use your resources where they will do the most good. However, investing in a website for the candidate and a way to take donations online should always be considered.
Doorbell materials, like brochures and doorknob hangers, are important. Get quotes on the price to design and print these materials. Budget for personalized follow-up postcards and mailers, and set aside some funds for “quick response” mailers to counter unexpected events.
We’ve seen this happen where an opponent waits until close to election day to come out with a new attack line. Without money in reserve, the candidate was unable to properly respond. Some voters take silence as acquiescence. You always want to define yourself to voters and not leave the job to your opposition.
This may be the bulk of your campaign expenses. You’ll allocate the majority of your budget to paid media for your messaging. For example, if you have a $2,500 budget, consider spending $1,000 on paid media. The more you can spend on paid media, the better.
Remember, no one ever lost an election by spending too much on advertising.
“Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” – Will Rogers
There will be a number of additional expenses that will come up. Some will be large, others small. Some costs, like campaign events and rallies, can’t be calculated with much specificity until details are known. Other costs, like filing fees, are standard and are an easy line item to fill out.
Don’t forget to budget for:
- Filing Fees
- Legal and Compliance Costs
- Office Expenses
- Printing / Photocopying
- Campaign Events
- Lawn Signs
- Security Measures
- Emergency and GOTV Fund
And budget for miscellaneous expenses so you’re better prepared for any unexpected costs.
Nice, But Not Necessary:
Avoid racking up expenses on cheap campaign trinkets (buttons, magnets, etc.). They may be fun, but they really don’t move the needle in terms of growing voter support.
When Do You Need The Money?
Show you’re serious by raising money early. A good rule of thumb is to have about 30% of your estimated budget raised within the first month. This seed money will cover upfront costs like campaign materials, website development, and staff salaries. Early fundraising success signals to potential donors that your campaign deserves their consideration.
Many local candidates make the mistake of starting small and hoping to snowball success throughout the election season. But you’ll find that time is too limited. You need a strong start. Put together your fundraising strategy before you announce your candidacy.
“In all, just 158 American families had donated half of all the money to candidates on the ballot [in the 2016 election].” – Evan Osnos, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury
How To Start Raising Funds:
Start with friends, family, and local activists as your primary sources. Be ready to make actual phone calls, as it’s the most effective way to raise money. Don’t fall into the belief that you can avoid personally reaching out for help.
Check the specific election laws and regulations in your area. They dictate when you can raise money, how much supporters can contribute, and specific financial filing requirements.
Related: How Local Candidates Raise Money
Breakdown of Local Campaign Costs for Town Council:
Here are some (very) rough estimates of costs and expenses broken down by major categories. Actual expenses will vary depending on the size of your district, the competitiveness of your race, and your overall campaign strategy. You may also decide to allocate more or less for specific line items depending on these factors.
Sample Political Campaign Budget:
- Candidate Filing Fee: $500 – This is the fee required to officially file your candidacy.
- Campaign Materials:
- Yard Signs: $1,500 – Printing and distributing yard signs with your campaign logo and message.
- Brochures and Flyers: $2,000 – Design and printing of campaign brochures and flyers.
- Banners and Posters: $500 – Creating banners and posters for campaign events and rallies.
- Campaign Website: $700-2,000 – Development and hosting of a campaign website to inform voters about your platform and events. This may include related online services like an email vendor.
- Online Ads: $1,000 – Running targeted online ads on social media and local news websites.
- Local Newspaper Ads: $800 – Placing advertisements in local newspapers.
- Campaign Events:
- Town Hall Meetings: $800 – Hosting town hall meetings to engage with voters.
- Meet-and-Greet Events: $500 – Organizing events for one-on-one interactions with constituents.
- Campaign Kickoff Rally: $1,000 – Hosting a campaign kickoff event to generate enthusiasm.
- Campaign Staff and Volunteers:
- Campaign Manager: $3,000 – Hiring a part-time campaign manager.
- Field Organizer: $2,000 – Paying for a part-time field organizer.
- Volunteer Coordination: $500 – Expenses related to volunteer recruitment and management.
- Travel Expenses: $1,200 – Budget for travel within the town to attend events and meet constituents.
- Compliance and Professional Expenses: $1,500 – Consultation and expenses related to campaign finance reporting and compliance with election laws.
- Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) Efforts: $1,000 – Phone banks, canvassing, and transportation cost estimates for voters on election day.
- Campaign Merchandise: $600 – Ordering campaign merchandise such as volunteer T-shirts.
- Miscellaneous Expenses: $1,000 – Budget for unexpected or miscellaneous campaign expenses.
- Contingency Fund: $2,000 – Reserve for unforeseen costs or emergencies during the campaign.
Total Estimated Budget: ~$17,500
The bulk of your spending (70-80%) should be dedicated to voter outreach. Create a detailed budget tailored to your campaign’s needs and potential resources. Try to secure quotes and actual cost numbers as early as possible.
Tip: Inflation has been higher over the last few years. Prices from a few years ago are likely higher today. Take this into account when budgeting rough numbers.
Local campaign finance can be tricky. Research some nail down rough numbers when you start. As your campaign starts to take shape and you begin raising and spending money, your numbers will start to take more shape. Stay flexible and prepared for unexpected expenses.
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