Look, let’s get one thing out of the way right now: if you came here looking for an article that says “it will cost you X amount of dollars to run for office” you are going to be sorely disappointed - there are simply too many variables involved in campaigning to be able to make such a blanket statement regarding your particular race.
What we can do is give you the various factors and considerations veteran campaigners make when they are putting together their budgets at the start of a race.
Nature of the District
The physical and demographic makeup of your district needs to be taken into account as you start to think about how much money you will need. These facts are largely out of your control, but how you intend to approach the makeup of your district can have a big impact when budgeting.
Physical Size of the District
This is one that most people don’t even consider when they are running for office, but it can drastically change how you budget. Are you in a compact district that you could easily access from your home base on foot or does your district span across a city or county? Does it take up several counties or even a region of your state? Larger districts require more time and money to access, so be sure to plan your travel budget accordingly.
Similar to the physical size of your district is the makeup of homes in your district.
Urban areas are easier to physically canvas, however, you will probably want to spend less on things like lawn signs and door drop literature, as there are fewer places for you to access and place these items. Similarly, you will probably be spending more on mail and events in order to reach voters.
In suburban areas you will definitely want to invest in literature that you can leave on the door and lawn signs you can place around the district. Events are also much easier to hold in people’s homes, however, you will need to have more of them over a wider area in order to be effective. Budget heavily for volunteer-related items, because they are going to be doing a lot of walking.
Rural areas require a heavy investment in lawn signs, mail, and possibly even billboards. Prepare to travel long distances in key areas with volunteer pools in order to hit whole towns in a day. Travel budgets are high, but the high voter contact rates make it worth it.
Historical voter turnout can have a huge impact on how you structure your campaign. If you are running in a district that has 70% turnout, expect to spend quite a bit of money on reaching a large number of voters; similarly, if turnout is in the 30-40% range, you have to be smarter and more precise in your targeting, but, overall, will need to spend less on trying to reach these particular voters. That being said, because turnout is so important, you will need to put more resources into your Get Out The Vote activities in these less active districts.
By far the hardest thing to pin down when making your budget is how competitive the district actually is. If you are running against a long-sitting incumbent, you probably will have a harder time fundraising but, if you create a competitive campaign, you can do more with less (though your opponent may decide to dump more money into the race if they are concerned they are going to lose). On the other side, hyper-competitive races tend to require much more money but tend to attract more funds to the race.
Like every business out there, you will find that campaigns have various fixed costs. Things like access to the voter file, staff, office space, internet, consultants, web hosting, and filing and bank fees should just be expected.
In some cases, you might be able to reduce your fixed costs by sharing them with your political party or with a candidate running for a different office in your area (for example: if you are running for state house, but also work with a candidate running for state senate, you might be able to share a campaign manager and your party might be able to provide the voter file to you for a reduced rate).
These costs vary based on things like your local job market and what government offices charge, so you will need to ask around to get an idea of what costs you can expect to incur.
Your variable costs, well, vary, depending on the nature of the office you are running for and how aggressive you intend to be in your campaign. The good thing about variable costs is that they are largely in your control and are dependant on how willing and able you are to scale up your campaign.
Perhaps your largest variable cost is going to be advertising. You could buy one flyer for your entire campaign or plan a massive TV, radio, print, billboard, and online media blitz. Investigate rates in your area to find out what meets your needs and build from there. Again, rates for all of these things vary widely based on your local media market.
T-shirts, literature, and water! Oh my! One budgetary item that can vary widely depending on your capacity is volunteer needs. Specifically, we are talking about the items (like tote bags, clipboards, cell phone chargers, and pens) that volunteers will need to properly represent you when they do things like knock on doors, go to events, walk in parades, and make phone calls. Do your research among various vendors to find the best deals.
Events and Travel
It is always wise to include travel and events into your budget. That being said, many candidates opt not to be reimbursed for the mileage they put on their vehicles while on the campaign trail and instead to eat the cost - but don’t you at least want the option built into your budget?
You will also want to make sure to budget for events as well. Though the cost to participate in any particular event is fixed, you can pick and choose which events you wish to attend. Make a list of the events you know you want to show up to, ask organizers how much it would cost to participate, and add this into your budget.
Supplies and Miscellaneous
Supplies can become a bit muddled when you consider the fact that a pen works just as well in your hand as it does in the hands of a volunteer. As a good rule of thumb, supplies not entirely related to volunteers should be about 1% of your total budget.
And don’t forget about that all-important miscellaneous cost. Part savings account, part wishlist fulfiller, your miscellaneous budget can help get you out of jams when something comes up that you just didn’t plan for or can’t fit into a nice category. Figure out your entire budget, then add an additional 5-10% at the end to find your miscellaneous budget.
History of Your Race
One of the most valuable resources you have at your disposal are campaign finance reports. Depending on the race you are running for and your state, this information might be housed at the city, county, and/or state level and government offices should have archives dating back years.
When trying to learn how much your race will cost, spend a fair amount of time taking a look at these reports - and not just the reports of winners; take a look at the losers reports as well to see if you can spot any possible pitfalls. Also, don’t just spend time on your specific race when looking through records - the campaign finance reports of those running for the same office in different, but similar, districts are just as useful.
Not only do campaign finance reports provide valuable information about how much you can expect to spend on your campaign, but also gives you a built-in guide for where you can go to buy things like lawn signs and t-shirts (things you have probably never even considered buying until you made the decision to run for office).
So, How Much Does It Cost to Run for Office?!
Again, we are sorry that we can’t give you a cut and dry answer on what it costs to run for office - there are just too many variables. But, you made it this far, so we will throw you a bone.
At a minimum, you can expect to spend at least $1.00 per active voter in your district. But, again, even this is a bit of a loose number, so use it as a starting point in building your budget and throw it out the second it is no longer viable.
In the end, remember this: a good, lean campaign can easily beat a bad, bloated campaign. All money does for a campaign is to help you get your message to the voter - but if the message is bad or you waste your money on things that voters don’t or won’t look at, all you will end up doing is setting that money on fire.