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Where Does Your Campaign Donation Actually Go?

Like any going concern these days, the bulk is spent on labor and marketing (and it took federal laws to stop them pocketing the leftovers)

It’s no secret we’re living through another gilded age, with the president a cartoon billionaire whose airplane and many residences have his name literally plastered all over them. Predictably, a majority of Americans are rightly dissatisfied with the amount of power that corporations and the absurdly wealthy have. 

But if you’re looking to donate to a candidate or cause to have a better say in things, what are these campaign donations used for? Is it blown on coffee travelers and boxes of everything bagels served at the local precinct office? Is it spent the same way as the huge donations to campaigns from PACs, corporations and billionaires? Basically, what does your $2.70 really buy, anyway? 

With the help of Jonathan Zucker — a campaign finance attorney and the CEO of Democracy Engine, an online campaign and organization donation platform — we’re electing to find some answers.

Come on, then — what are campaign donations used for?

Zucker says the two biggest buckets of any campaign are people, and what can most broadly be called marketing. The people aspect means hiring staff and deploying organizers. “Salary is a substantial expense for campaigns,” Zucker says. The idea is to put an organizer on the ground in as many counties or precincts as you can afford to put a paid staffer (more on that in a bit). 

Marketing is, basically, all the messaging that a campaign puts out: Digital media advertising, social media outreach (some of which is done in-house, while others are paid media), mailers, and then, most expensively and generally only for large campaigns, TV and radio ad buys.

So what the hell did Tom Steyer spend $47 million on in three months?

Every candidate has different messaging needs. A guy like Steyer, whom most people have never heard of, spent a ton simply on name recognition — expensive and frequent TV spots, as well as those aforementioned boots on the ground. Zucker says it’s the same strategy, just with fewer millions spent, employed by others who weren’t previously household names — say, Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg. They spent their marketing dollars early on, on name recognition and telling people who they are. 

How many paid staffers are we talking about for a campaign?

It varies greatly on the size of the campaign — running for a seat on the New Hampshire state legislature, where a candidate may have 3,000 constituents and can knock on every single door in the district themself, is vastly different than a presidential campaign. Nevertheless, Zucker says there’s a general rule of thumb: Every field organizer hired by a campaign can effectively manage 20 to 30 volunteers, which gives an incredible multiplier effect (and can really stretch a dollar). Presidential campaigns may even have an additional layer, where paid staff members manage what might be called super volunteers (like a precinct captain), who then each manage a lot of volunteers. 

And what do the volunteers do for free?

They’re the ones making phone calls and stuffing envelopes. They’re also the foot soldiers who knock on doors and get a feel for who’s a potential supporter — from there, they might wrangle yard signs, leave literature for people to share with friends and make sure that each of these supporters actually gets to the polls on voting day. For all this, they’re entitled to consume all the coffee and donuts they can handle at the local field office (which are commonly procured by the precinct captain).

How many paid staffers does, say, a top-tier presidential campaign have?

Right now, during primary season, Zucker says the paid staff numbers in the hundreds. By the time the general election rolls around for just the party nominees, that number will climb to the thousands. 

Is my small donation treated any differently than the zillions of dollars donated by PACs and super donors?

Zucker says not — once money has arrived in a campaign’s account, it’s all treated the same, a bit like a general fund. “A campaign account is a campaign account,” he says. “And once they receive a legitimate donation, there’s no differentiating how they treat or spend the money.”

What about all that traveling that politicians do? That’s gotta add up.

It can, depending on the scale. Going back to that New Hampshire legislature example, those candidates are probably walking around. Those running for, say, the Missouri state senate are driving around. And even though presidential candidates are logging a lot of flight time (Zucker says they often charter planes, as it’s the only way for them to bounce around the nation effectively), when they’re in a particular state, they’re not flying around it — they’re usually on a bus.

Do those precinct offices pay rent?

Yep, and that’s another infrastructure expense. These types of expenses are why some states relish being among the first ones to vote — being relevant to the primary process is great for the local economy. In addition to rental income in every city or county, there’s money spent at restaurants, supermarkets, printing companies, T-shirt makers, bars and hotels. That’s because it’s not just the staffers who swoop in and spend money, it’s all the national media, too. And the local media get a financial boost from the additional ad buys in print, TV and radio. Same goes for battleground states in the general election: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania et al. There’s just lots more money being spent in their state.

Do campaigns have a real budget? Or do they basically aim to vacuum up all the money they can?

It depends on the campaign, but the more established a campaign is, the better it’s able to budget, Zucker says. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, for example, probably can reliably predict how many millions they’ll be bringing in on a monthly basis between now and whenever his campaign might end. That’s because they have a donor network and multiple years of fundraising experience with that community. It’s obviously easier for Scrooge McDucks like Steyer or Michael Bloomberg, who can just put in their own money, but still, they have a budget, and will also project out how much they expect to regularly raise.

From there, campaigns will create a minimum budget — a certain amount of money they absolutely know they’ll have, with which they’ll commit to buying certain airtime spots or spending it on certain things — and if they make more, they have plans for what they’d spend that extra amount on. Zucker says smaller campaigns will be making similar decisions, just at a lesser scale. 

What happens to money left over after an election?

Laws vary by state, but they’re generally some minor variation of the federal laws, Zucker says. The federal laws say the money can be used for a handful of specific purposes: You can put it toward a future run for federal office (Elizabeth Warren did this, transferring money left over in her Senate campaign account to her presidential campaign account). Or you can donate the money to state and national party committees (or to PACs, in some states). Or you can give it away to charity.

The latter is actually more common than you might think: Howard Dean put the money left over in Dean for America, which turned into Democracy for America and became a political arm. Ditto Barack Obama: Obama for America became Organizing for America, then Organizing for Action.

What you can’t do is simply keep it, although predictably, Zucker says this was fairly common until several decades ago, when campaign finance laws changed. 

Do people generally care how a campaign spends their donation?

Nah. Zucker says most people give money in order for their candidate to win, and trust that the campaign is going to spend it in the best way possible in order to do just that. And again, throughout history, the best use of it has repeatedly been shown to be the same two old things: people and publicity.