What Would Be a ‘Non-Obscene’ Sum of Money Needed to Run for President?

Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., December 19, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The latest fundraising email from the Bernie Sanders campaign, signed by campaign manager Faiz Shakir, has a subject line that simply says: “Obscene.” (No, it’s not a reference to Sanders’ old essays for an alternative newspaper, the Vermont Freeman.) The message begins with the lament, “it takes an obscene amount of money to run for president. Normally, someone like Bernie, who refuses to have a super PAC, and who does not have high-dollar fundraising events or accept money from billionaires, would have a very tough time running for president.”

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he could not define obscenity but he knows it when he sees it. Perhaps the amount that winning presidential candidates raise is obscene, but very few people in politics could define what a non-obscene sum would be.

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A presidential campaign is an attempt to win over and mobilize tens of millions of voters across all fifty states — an endeavor that cannot be done cheaply if it is to have any chance at succeeding. The candidate is going to need paid staffers; you’re just not going to find qualified, experienced people willing to put in the insane, relentless hours for free.

Before anything else, a presidential campaign needs to get the candidate on the primary ballot, which, depending upon the state, may cost little or it may cost a lot. (In Arkansas, Democratic candidates must pay a $2,500 filing fee and collect 5,000 signatures. In South Carolina, Democratic candidates must pony up $20,000.)

The candidate is going to need to travel from place to place, whether it’s by car, bus, commercial air travel, or private jets. (The Biden campaign spent nearly $924,000 on private jet travel in the third quarter. More on that below.) Eventually the candidate may need a security guard or bodyguard traveling with him, as a candidate does not receive Secret Service protection until they are officially nominated. The candidate and his traveling staff are going to need places to stay in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina. The campaign will need a headquarters, which will rack up considerable costs on rent, phone, Internet and cable, and utilities. The staff needs to eat; campaigns spend thousands of dollars ordering coffee, pizza, snacks, and other food for the campaign offices. A presidential campaign could start with just a few offices in the early states, but eventually it is going to need multiple offices in all fifty states. These offices and supporters will need yard signs, banners, flyers, and the usual paraphernalia. Any serious candidate will need a social media team, setting up the campaign website and managing its social-media presence.

Candidates may boast that they don’t care about what the polls say, but most campaign managers find it wise to conduct private surveys to measure the candidate’s name identification and popularity, what the public thinks of their opponents, and how respondents feel about particular ideas or messages. Focus groups can provide even more useful information in testing messages and gauging voter reaction to proposals.

Then there’s radio, television, and web advertising — and note that federal candidates are entitled to the lowest rates in the “class” of time they purchase for broadcasts. Whether or not you like the fact that television ads raise name identification, the effect is impossible to ignore — look at how Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg raised their name ID so quickly this cycle. Most voters aren’t going to attend town halls, rallies, candidate forums, and only a fraction of primary voters will watch all or parts of the debates. If you want to reach voters who are not political junkies, you have to try to catch their attention through mass media. Running a 30-second television ad nationally in prime time costs anywhere from  $112,000 to $342,000. Radio is cheaper; “radio advertising can cost anywhere from $200 to $5,000 per week, and in major markets such as New York or Los Angeles that cost can balloon to $8,000 or more.”

Add it all up, and running a successful presidential campaign is destined to cost, at minimum, tens of millions of dollars and more realistically hundreds of millions of dollars. Is that amount “obscene”? If it is, what amount of money would represent non-obscene sum to run a successful presidential campaign?

(Note that history has many examples where the candidate that spent the most didn’t win. Last cycle, Trump and his affiliated Super-PAC spent $646 million, while Hillary Clinton and her affiliated Super-PAC spent $1.1 billion.)

Finally, regarding those seemingly lavish expenses on private jets, it’s easy to scoff at campaigns spending money on those, but it may well be the most efficient way to get a candidate to multiple events in one day if they’re on opposite sides of the state or in different states. (Driving from Sioux City to Cedar Rapids in Iowa is a four-hour drive. Even in seemingly tiny New Hampshire, the distance between Lancaster and Nashua is a two-and-a-half hour drive.) The single most valuable resource of any campaign is the time of the candidate; you can always try to get more staffers or raise more money but your candidate only has twenty-four hours in a day and has to sleep sometime.

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