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Cost to Run
For Candidates

How Much Does It Cost to Run for Office?

2 min read
Cost to Run
Good Party Politics Team · Mar 7, 2024

The election cycle of 2020 was a banner year for political spending. In fact, it was record-breaking, with an overall total of $14.4 billion dollars spent on federal political campaigns across the country. The most expensive was the race for Georgia Senate, costing over half a billion dollars. 

Running for public office in the United States can be as varied in cost as the offices themselves. From local school boards to the U.S. House of Representatives, the financial demands of campaigning reflect not only the level of government but also the competitive landscape of the race, the geographic size of the district, and the strategic decisions made by candidates. 

Join us as we delve into the multifaceted costs associated with running for office across different levels of government in the U.S. and explore strategies that independent candidates can use to minimize costs while maximizing their impact and reach.

The Cost Spectrum of Political Campaigning

It probably goes without saying that the more local the office, the more intimate — and less expensive — the campaign. Cost is relative, but the nature of modern political campaigning and the media involved can turn fundraising and strategic campaign funding into make-or-break affairs.

Read on for an overview of the average cost of campaigning at various levels of office.

Local Offices: The Gateway to Politics

Running for a local office, such as a seat on your local school board or city council, is often considered the first step into the political arena for many aspiring public servants. The costs associated with these campaigns can vary widely, but they’re generally the least expensive. 

For example, a school board election campaign can cost anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the district and the competitiveness of the race.

At this level, campaign expenses typically include filing fees, campaign materials (signs, flyers, and mailers), and perhaps a modest budget for digital advertising. In smaller districts, grassroots efforts like door-to-door canvassing, town hall meetings, and community events are often more impactful and cost-effective than large-scale advertising campaigns.


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State Legislatures: Stepping Up the Ladder

As we ascend to state-level positions, such as legislative offices, the cost of campaigning escalates. According to the National Institute on Money in Politics, the average state senate campaign in 2020 cost approximately $120,000, while the average cost for a state House of Representatives or Assembly seat was around $72,000

However, these averages fail to consider significant variances among states, with highly competitive races in large states costing several hundred thousand dollars.

Federal Offices: A Financial Behemoth

Campaigning for federal office represents a quantum leap in terms of financial requirements. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) provides detailed data on campaign expenditures, showcasing the stark differences in campaign finance between the House and Senate races.

U.S. House of Representatives

In the 2020 election cycle, the average successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives spent over $2 million. However, competitive districts often see spending that far exceeds this average. For instance, the 2020 campaign for Georgia's 7th Congressional District saw total expenditures surpassing $14 million from both major party candidates.

U.S. Senate

The stakes are even higher in U.S. Senate races, where campaigns can run into the tens of millions. The average successful Senate campaign expenditure in 2020 was nearly $20 million. High-profile races, such as the 2020 South Carolina Senate race, saw combined spending from the candidates exceed $130 million, making it one of the most expensive Senate races in history.

The Role of Fundraising and PACs

A significant aspect of running for office at any level involves fundraising. Candidates often spend a considerable amount of time soliciting donations from individuals, organizations, and political action committees (PACs). The ability to fundraise effectively can be as crucial as a candidate's political platform in determining the success of a campaign.

For high-profile races, Super PACs and dark money groups can contribute millions of dollars in independent expenditures, further inflating the cost of campaigning. While these funds do not go directly to the candidate's campaign, they are used for or against candidates in the form of advertising, outreach, and other campaign activities.

Sources of Campaign Funding for Independent Candidates

In the United States, independent political candidates often face unique challenges in funding their campaigns, especially when competing against candidates from major political parties with established fundraising infrastructures. However, there are several sources of funding and support mechanisms designed to help level the playing field for independents and candidates from smaller parties. 

Here are some of the best sources of candidate funding for independent candidates:

Small Individual Contributions

Many independent candidates rely heavily on small donations from individual supporters. These contributions can be solicited through grassroots fundraising efforts, social media campaigns, crowdfunding platforms, and personal networks. Websites like ActBlue for progressives and WinRed for conservatives, while typically associated with major-party candidates, showcase the model that independents can adapt through platforms like GoFundMe or Kickstarter.

Public Financing

Some states in the U.S. offer public financing options for candidates who can demonstrate a minimum level of public support, usually measured by the number of small contributions from state residents. Public financing laws aim to reduce candidates' dependence on large contributions and PAC money, providing a more level playing field. 

For instance, the Presidential Public Funding Program offers matching funds for primary candidates and a grant for general election candidates, though it’s less commonly used now due to spending limits that come with acceptance.

Volunteer Support

While not a direct source of funding, volunteer support can significantly reduce campaign costs. Volunteers can assist with canvassing, phone banking, social media, and other campaign activities that would otherwise require paid staff or services.

In-Kind Contributions

In-kind contributions, such as donated services, office space, or materials, can also support independent campaigns. These contributions help offset costs that the campaign would otherwise have to pay for.

Matching Funds

In jurisdictions that offer matching funds, candidates who raise a certain amount of money through small-dollar contributions may receive additional funds from the government at a set matching rate. New York City’s Campaign Finance Board, for example, provides a matching funds program that amplifies the impact of small donations to local campaigns.

Challenges and Considerations

While these funding sources can provide a financial lifeline for independent campaigns, navigating the landscape of campaign finance often requires a nuanced understanding of relevant laws and regulations, which can vary widely by state and federal jurisdiction. The effectiveness of each funding source can also vary based on the candidate's platform, visibility, and network.

Independent candidates need to employ a combination of these funding sources while ensuring their campaign strategies are resource-efficient and impactful. Building a strong grassroots movement and leveraging social media and digital platforms can also play a crucial role in reaching potential supporters and donors.

Minimizing Costs without Sacrificing Reach

For independent candidates, the financial barriers to entry can be daunting. However, several strategies can help minimize costs while still running an effective campaign:

  1. Leverage Social Media and Digital Platforms: Digital campaigns can be cost-effective ways to reach a wide audience. Platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram allow for targeted advertising at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. Additionally, digital tools can help with organizing volunteers, fundraising, and voter outreach.

  2. Grassroots Organizing: Personal connections and community engagement can be powerful tools for independent candidates. Door-to-door canvassing, attending community events, and hosting town halls can help build a dedicated base of supporters without the need for significant financial investment.

  3. Crowdfunding: Platforms like GoFundMe and Kickstarter can be used to raise funds from a broad base of small donors. This not only helps with campaign finances but also builds a community of supporters who are invested in the candidate's success.

  4. Earned Media: Gaining free media coverage through newsworthy events, press releases, and media appearances can significantly increase a candidate's visibility without the cost of paid advertising.

  5. Volunteer Support: Mobilizing a network of volunteers can reduce costs associated with canvassing, phone banking, and other campaign activities.

Final Thoughts

The cost of running for office in the United States varies widely by the level of government and other factors. While financial resources are undeniably a crucial component of political campaigning, strategic decisions, grassroots support, and digital engagement can play pivotal roles in leveling the playing field, especially for independent and less well-funded candidates. 

The landscape of political campaigning continues to evolve, with technology and social media opening new avenues for cost-effective campaigning and voter outreach. Good Party offers one of those avenues. By partnering with us to plan and launch your independent campaign, you’ll have access to expert campaign advice and high-tech tools like our AI Campaign Manager. Contact us to book a free demo today.


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How to Run for Office
Campaign Finance
Independent Candidates
Cost to Run
By Good Party Politics Team
The politics team is focused on transforming the political landscape by promoting transparency, accountability, and positive change. They aim to engage citizens in the political process, encourage informed decision-making, and support candidates who prioritize the common good. Their mission revolves around creating a more fair and just political system, fostering collaboration, and breaking down traditional barriers of partisanship.