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This is the complete guide to creating a campaign budget for your political campaign.
Table of Contents
IntroductionThe point of a political campaign is to reach as many voters as possible with a persuasive message to get them to vote for your candidate, and a campaign budget should serve that goal. Understanding what campaigns spend money on and why will allow you to maximize the reach of every hard-earned dollar you raise. After disbursements are broken down to the most basic level, two broad categories remain: money spent on reaching voters through political advertising (television ads, social media marketing, mailers, phonebanking, etc.) and money spent on supporting the effort to reach voters (i.e., a campaign office, staff, printers, and other GOTV efforts). Under these two categories, the expected costs can be further segmented under departments and whatever expenses your campaign identifies as essential to running a successful campaign.
How Do I Create a Campaign Budget?When setting up a campaign budget, you first need to create an outline of expenses based on funding whatever components you think are necessary to win your race. This outline will include drafting out how much television, mail, digital advertising (Instagram, Facebook and other social media), and field voter contact you want to run, including the supporting overhead costs needed to achieve those goals. While drafting your budget, keep the amount you believe you can realistically raise in mind to ensure you can afford the costs you identified as necessary. Once you outline your voter contact or political advertising budget, start filling in the associated overhead costs. Keep overhead costs to an absolute minimum, and only add an expense when it helps your campaign reach more voters (i.e., fundraising, recruiting more campaign volunteers, saving time that could be better spent, etc.). You’ll only know how much you need to raise after you have mapped out your expenses. Then further detail your budget by breaking it down into weekly segments. This breakdown will allow you to track fundraising progress, any risk of going into the red, pass-through costs, or approximate cash on hand (COH), to name just a few critical metrics that should be part of your campaign budget.
Why Is It Important for a Campaign to Budget Correctly?While this seems like an obvious question, countless political campaigns just like yours have found themselves running out of money, causing them to scale down their Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts with no time to recover. You’ll often have to track hundreds of expenditures throughout your campaign, and it’s easy for seemingly small items to add up, blowing holes in your GOTV and political advertising budget. Keeping track of every penny spent or knowing when you can expect particular spending to happen helps ensure your campaign is on track to afford the voter contact or communications program you need to win. In other words, properly tracking and managing your budget are crucial—which emphasizes why one of the most important job requirements for your campaign manager is budget management experience. Potential managers with years of voter contact or communications experience are often passed over because they have never managed a budget, for good reason. Without a neatly and closely tracked budget, your candidate campaign will be in the dark, potentially setting you up for fatal and avoidable mistakes when things matter—or worse, leaving you with a mountain of debt to raise down after election day.
What’s a Normal Budget for a Political Campaign?Your campaign’s budget can differ greatly depending on several factors: the type of race you’re running (local, state, or national), the competitiveness of the race, what your fundraising abilities are, etc. That said, we created a template of a sample campaign budget to give you an idea of what one would look like, as shown below.
What Do Candidates Spend Money on During Campaigns?As a general rule, most political campaigns reserve a bare minimum of 70% of their budget for voter contact (phonebanking, door knocking, television, radio, mail, social media, virtual events, etc.), spend no more than 15% on staff, and reserve the rest for miscellaneous expenses and overhead. If spending 15% on staff or overhead isn’t necessary for your campaign, increase your voter contact budget. While your campaign will incur costs consistently throughout the election cycle (office leases, staff salaries, campaign software), the bulk of the money you raise should be spent in your campaign’s final months when voters are most receptive to paid communications and contact from your campaign. Anticipate how much your voter contact and communications will cost the campaign over the entire race, and then raise and save every penny with that bare minimum amount in mind.
Why Should I Save My Money?To be blunt, the more you spend on items that don’t reach voters, the fewer votes you will receive. Your campaign should therefore keep discretionary costs as low as possible. Spend money only if necessary. For example, it may be tempting to buy plush furniture for your office early on, but there’s a good chance you can find a supporter to in-kind leftover office furniture, allowing you to spend your campaign money on actually reaching voters.
Reconciling Your Budget with FundraisingOnce your budget and finance plan are in place, you need to track revenue against the budget to ensure your original plan remains feasible. If the budget you set earlier in the campaign turned out to be outside your fundraising ability, you should adjust to reality. When you reconcile your budget and fundraising, you can then make difficult but critical decisions while you still have options to modify your paid media plan. That’s highly preferable to being forced to make changes out of necessity when your back is against a wall. Many campaigns, seeking to avoid that very scenario, set weekly meetings with the campaign manager and finance director to ensure the campaign remains on track. Don’t be the campaign that has to cancel a television ad buy in late October because you thought you could pull off a fundraising miracle—or worse, be left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt to raise down after a loss on election day.
Compliance and Campaign Finance Law: Reporting and Tracking ReceiptsTo stay compliant with campaign finance laws, every single dollar of all political campaign contributions, both raised and spent, must be tracked and reported to the FEC or the state or local equivalents. To report, you need receipts for all your political fundraising, expenses (e.g., pay stubs), reimbursements, and in-kind donations (e.g., for that plush leftover office furniture a donor donated for your campaign HQ). Such receipts are critical to remaining compliant with reporting requirements. This practice will also help you determine precisely how you’re spending your money, giving you the fullest picture of your campaign budget.
Quarterly reports and cash on handEach quarter or semester, depending on what state and race you are running for office in, you will have to publicly report your political fundraising totals, including your cash on hand (COH). Both metrics will be used by media, potential endorsers, and donors alike to determine your campaign’s strength. Have an eye-popping fundraising total but low COH? That’s a sign of reckless spending—especially early on in the cycle. For this reason, many campaigns will even defer costs until after the quarter ends to maximize their COH number. Whatever the case with your own campaign, you need to maintain a good sense of your funds in order to properly budget. Such awareness also allows your campaign to be aware of upcoming costs and to adjust as needed to avoid embarrassing quarterly reports.
- How should I keep track of political campaign contributions? As mentioned above, keep all of your receipts, pay stubs, etc. for all money going in and out of your campaign bank account. If your budget allows, hiring a finance director or compliance consultant who can help assure you follow the political finance laws relevant to your campaign can also be helpful.
- Who should I consult to ensure my campaign budget stays on track? Your campaign manager will be responsible for keeping your campaign budget balanced and well documented. They’ll take the lead on the overall management of your budget, but it can be helpful to have a finance director or fundraising consultant available to advise on expected revenue. Political consultants can also play a supportive role by helping you anticipate costs, especially hidden costs, that you might not think of being that you’re new to running for office.