The Cost of Running for Political Office

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Consumers may be holding onto more of their money in this tough economy, but at least one group of Americans continues to spend like there’s no tomorrow: political candidates.

So far, candidates running for the Senate and House of Representatives in the midterm elections on Nov. 2 have spent nearly $1.5 billion on their races, according to the most recent data from the Federal Election Commission. That amount is already more than the $1.39 billion spent during the 2008 congressional elections, and it still does not take into account what this year’s candidates will likely spend in the home stretch.

“There has been a steady increase in campaign spending in recent years,” said Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks the influence of money in elections. He explains the trend in part by noting there is simply more at stake. “Because there are so many races that are incredibly competitive and one party may be able to overtake the House, one side really smells blood and the other side doesn’t want to get knocked on its rear end, so both are throwing money down.”

This is evident in several high-profile races around the country in which candidates are spending tens of millions of dollars. In Nevada, for example, the Republican candidate for Senate, Sharron Angle, raised $14 million in the third quarter of this year alone for her race against Harry Reid, the incumbent and current Senate Majority Leader. Reid, meanwhile, raised nearly $20 million just in the first half of this year.

Other Senate candidates like Blanche Lincoln and Kirsten Gillibrand, who are facing tough re-election battles, have spent upwards of $10 million on their campaigns.

While this may sound like an obscene amount to spend on a single race, such numbers have become the rule rather than the exception.

Back in 1990, the average amount spent by candidates who were successfully elected to the Senate was $3.9 million and the amount spent by a winning candidate for the House was just $400,000, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. By 2000, those averages had actually doubled and as of 2008, the average amount spent by winning candidates was an astounding $7.26 million in the Senate and $840,000 for House candidates.

“We fully expect for both Senate and House candidates, the average winner will have spent a notable amount more in the 2010 elections than they did even two years ago,” Levinthal said. “That tracks with just an overall escalation in the amount of money it takes to run and win a race.”

In many ways, this increase in spending on congressional campaigns was eclipsed by the skyrocketing costs of the 2008 presidential election. To win the presidency, then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign alone spent $740 million, which is nearly $100 million more than the combined amount that President Bush and Senator John Kerry spent in the presidential race four years earlier.

Putting aside the fact that more is spent when more appears to be at stake, there are many other factors, large and small, that contribute to this escalation in campaign spending. These range from the increased price of gas to the cost of hiring a full staff, fundraisers and a team of pollsters. But for congressional and federal races, it largely comes down to the price of political ads.

“The cost of advertising is going up, plus you have so many more outlets now where you have to fight for the voter’s attention, which means you have to spend more saturating the airwaves,” said Ray La Raja, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who specializes in campaign financing. “Broadcasting is what dominates over half the campaign budget, at least in a federal election.”

That said, while it may cost more on average to run for a seat in Congress now, it’s important to keep in mind that the cost of running for political office varies widely from state to state and by position.

For starters, as the numbers clearly show, it is almost always more expensive to run for a seat in the Senate than to run for a seat in the House, for the same reason that it’s always pricier to run for president than to run for Congress.

“Senators have to appeal to a larger demographic than House candidates since they are running statewide, which means they have to buy into more media markets and spend more to get the vote out,” said Angela McMillen, executive director for the American Association of Political Consultants. By definition then, to run for a position that represents a larger area or population, you have to spend more on travel and advertising to get your message out.

Of course, a House race can be incredibly pricey too if it’s competitive or involves a high-profile candidate like John Boehner, the current House minority leader who has already spent more than $6 million on his re-election campaign.

But all things being equal, the final cost largely depends on the state in which you’re running.

“Spending for statewide office is controlled by the size of the state and the number of media markets there,” McMillen said. “For example, it doesn’t cost as much to run in Iowa as it does in Ohio because Ohio has seven media markets and Iowa only has one.”  As a result, candidates in Iowa don’t have to spend as much to saturate the airwaves with their message.

According to several political consultants we spoke with, the most expensive states to run for office tend to be New York, New Jersey, Florida and California. New Jersey is particularly pricey because candidates must advertise in both the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, both of which are pricey, to get their message out to residents.

If you’re running in a more local election though, you may be able to avoid much of these costs.

“From my perspective, I don’t think local races are groing in cost as fast,” La Raja said. Part of the reason for this is that it’s still possible to run in these elections without relying too much on pricey advertising deals. “In local elections, people are still using lawn signs and now, taking advantage of the Internet to get their message out.”

In fact, according to McMillen, it is “absolutely possible” to campaign and win a race in local and city elections for as little as $15,000. And she should know, because she’s actually done it before.

Prior to working at the American Association of Political Consultants, McMillen helped run campaigns for local politicians in Ohio. She recalls guiding one woman in her election to become a township trustee, doing little more than mailing and calling constituents, and hosting a single “dogs ‘n suds” event to get voters to come out.

“We got 100 people to come to her event and she won the race, because that was [sic] all the voters she had in her district,” she said.

So what exactly should a candidate do with a $15,000 budget in order to win a race?

“Buy some yard signs, magnets, fliers, direct mail and maybe make some robo calls,” McMillen said. “And maybe use some of the money to get someone to set up a website and a Facebook page for you.”

Nothing fancy, just the basics.

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