Planning Your Political Campaign: Campaign Budget Formation Strategy

April 1, 2011 6:37 am 2 comments

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This is the second in a series of articles on the essence of running for office. The theme of my articles will be about strategies and casualties found along the campaign trail. I will discuss what makes a good candidate and what makes a campaign successful.

No matter which office you or the candidate you are supporting are running for, budgeting is a crucial element to winning the race. Outside of selecting the right race and correct image strategy (more on this another day), writing an accurate budget is a crucial tool for success. Most campaigns running neck and neck with their opponent fail to cross the finish line first because of financial constraints late in the campaign; this is poor planning and poor budget strategy. Let’s discuss the basics for budgeting a political campaign. To do so, we will investigate how to plan your expenses, where to trim back and when do go on a spending spree.

First, we must understand politicians are naturally born without a strong financial sense. For all of those who run for office and claim “I am not a politician,” sorry, once your name is on the ballot, congratulations, you are a politician. To twist a phrase by Sir Richard Branson, if you want to make a politician a millionaire, give him a billion dollars. It’s best to have outside help in drawing your budget. It always works out best when multiple individuals with different skill sets and vendor relationships help you plan for the financial role ahead.

When budgeting a political campaign, you must be able to plan your expenses accurately and realistically. To do so, you must work backward. Start your budget with election day and work your way to the present. Campaigns which plan for the initial expenses straight away and worry about the “latter” when they “cross that bridge” are essentially planning to run out of money. Campaigns will spend the majority of their dollars in the last two months of the election cycle, and the bulk of that in the final weeks. About two thirds of dollars will be spent on direct voter contact and another third on infrastructure and payroll.

Realistically decide how much money you can place in your coffers right away, and how much you can commit to later on. Seed money is important. If potential donors see you believe in yourself, they too will believe in you. For the remainder of the money, set realistic fund raising goals. If you are challenging an incumbent, no matter how unpopular he or she might be (or how unpopular you think she or he is) do not expect to raise significant money. Once you have figured out your fund raising goal, commit to a feasible plan to raise this money. Remember, if you calculate your personal commitments and fund raising goals too low, you will run out of money. They key is to be realistic; I cannot stress this enough. Remember, there are few sugar daddies in politics and no free rides.

Plan for the last expenses first; this includes mail, radio, television, get out the vote events, phone banks and poll watchers – any expense which will come in the final days of the campaign. Budget 15% over what you believe this will cost you to ensure you are prepared for an unexpected turn. If you come in below budget, you can be pleasantly surprised. In order to truly budget for the bulk of your campaign, the final weeks, do not estimate. Consult with professionals who understand what campaign products cost. Once you have calculated the money needed for the end of the campaign, continue to work backward.

Many candidates become overly excited when they first throw their hat in the ring; They will go out and buy way too many over priced T-Shirts, bumper stickers or signs or hire too many staff members too soon. Doing so is a recipe for disaster. You will run out of money in the end, unless you are fortunate enough to be a multimillionaire. We have already decided it is best to plan for the final expenses of a campaign first. Now we work backward, we take what is left and budget for things we will need sooner: signage, a website, campaign literature, newspaper ads and campaign events, to name a few. With the remaining money, you will be able to budget for payroll. Do not expect full time, experienced and knowledgeable labor who will work for free, no matter how likeable you think you are. Remember, you are running for an office that will give you a pay check and benefits (probably for life with most government pension systems) and it’s inequitable to ask professionals to trade their own financial stability to “the cause” or a perceived cult of personality.

It’s preferable to be thrifty, it’s unwise to cut corners. Many methods candidates use to save money are penny wise and pound foolish. Do not think you can do without mail in a big race (more than 3,000 voters). Do not think push cards, yard signs or a website are a waste of money. Remember, campaigns are about name identification and cutting corners is a suicide pill. It’s best to seek aggressive vendor pricing and take advantage of bulk discounts. It is not wise to sacrifice winning products for the sake of saving a few bucks – penny wise and pound foolish – you will end up losing your seed money and your investment in yourself. At the same time, budget enough money for payroll. Am I bias here? Yes! But I have good reason to be; You don’t need the most expensive staff you can hire, but you do need individuals who you trust and who are good at what they do. Shopping around for a bottom feeder who will work for poverty wages will get you just that, a bottom feeder. Remember, if your budget seems to be ballooning outside of your ability to pay, you might be in the wrong race, or you might need to commit more personal funds to the race. Again, over budget 15 percent when it comes to initial products and payroll just in case.

Finally, there are many areas where you can scrimp. You do not need the most expensive and highest end graphics designers. I have seen good friends and clients get taken advantage of by graphic designers who charge multiples of reasonable prices because they are “the best.” Graphics is a competitive market and you can find some great deals. You do not need to have fold-out multi-page mailers. These tend to lose effectiveness to moderate sized ones (but do not go too small) and waste valuable campaign money. You do not need a BMW-class website. It needs to be unique and creative and user friendly, but it does not have to compare to a luxury retailer or Multinational Corporation’s website. Do not fall victim to individuals wanting high dollar invoices in exchange for instant notoriety or a magic wand, usually, these are snake oil salesmen. You can also cut back when it comes to newspaper ads. They have lost much of their effectiveness over the years and a modest budget is acceptable. Do not fall prey to sales people stating the newspaper will not cover your race if you don’t buy ad space with them – chances are, either way, the paper will not cover your race in a meaningful way regardless. You don’t need a Taj Mahal campaign office. A modest one will do, or better yet, find donated space. You are running a campaign, not a Starbucks, you do not need to have prime real estate.

Budgeting campaigns is difficult but important. Plan ahead and make sure you do not go broke as Election Day approaches. Be realistic and do not cut corners on the essentials. Find experienced help in drawing up a budget and understand you may have to commit to large personal loans if you want your campaign to be competitive and professional. The difference between a win and a loss may be a better finance strategy. Have I scared you away yet? Good! Politics is not for everyone. If you are prepared and realistic, you will succeed in elected life.


  • Its such as you learn my mind! You seem to understand a lot approximately this, such as you wrote the book in it or something. I believe that you simply can do with a few percent to drive the message house a little bit, however other than that, that is great blog. An excellent read. I’ll certainly be back.

  • Do you know the statewide range by district of actual expenditure(budget) for a successful Texas House campaign for Primary and General Election through Nov 2010 ?
    This would be great info for anybody considering a run. Even a likely source or two would be appreciated. H

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