Rules of Planning Your Campaign Budget

Originally posted on and written by Jim Arnold

 This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

How Much Should You Spend and How? 

Planning a campaign budget takes cold calculation in order to avoiding winding up short of money during the closing and most critical days of the campaign.  As you begin to prepare a budget you should remember these simple rules. 

Rules of Thumb:

  • Budget from Election Day backward – most people don’t make up their minds until the last two or three weeks of the campaign. Don’t make the mistake of running out of money just when people are starting to pay attention to the race.
  • Be realistic about how much money you can raise and spend—nothing is worse in a campaign than to expect to get a certain amount of money and then have to scale back expenditures that are necessary to win.  That’s why I suggest the next two ideas — cut revenue estimates by 15% and increase estimated expenditures by 15%.
  • Target 65% of your total expenditures for voter contact—if you are spending more than 35 % on non voter contact you need to readjust your priorities.  I define voter contact as collateral material, newsletters, signs, internet, mail, phones, radio, network and cable television.
  • Budget 10% of the entire estimated budget for contingencies—even if you do all of the above, you will still have unexpected expenses and you don’t want the campaign to end up in the red—so budget for the unexpected.


It is not necessarily the case that if you have more money than the other campaign you will win, but it’s certainly accurate to say that most losing campaigns lacked the resources to get their message to the voters.  The first exercise in putting together a budget is to get a realistic idea of how much money you can raise.  You can get a good idea by looking at past campaigns similar in size and duration or by talking to people who have been involved in such campaigns.  Below are some of the sources for campaign money.

  • Personal Money—some candidates can afford to put their own money in the race, others can’t.  Generally you should loan the campaign your money so you have the possibility of getting some or all of it back.
  • Specific Interest Groups/PACs—If you are a realtor for instance look to your local or state association and affiliated specialties for money and endorsements.
  • Major Donors—Use purchased lists or other sources to determine regular donors to political campaigns.  Giving is a behavior and those that give will give again.
  • Events and Mail—Events and mail are two of the most expensive ways to raise money but are utilized routinely.  Events take time to set up and usually require some kind of invitation as well as catering costs. Oftentimes however, events, particularly with special guests, are the only way to interests potential donors.  Mail is probably the most expensive way to raise money.  If you use lists acquired for “prospecting” you can expect you return to be less than 5% of the total universe mailed.
  • Loans/ Personal and Other—If you are willing to put your name on a loan and don’t mind paying it back, win or lose, this can be another source of money.  In some states supporters can co-sign loans for candidates as well.
  • In kind—Many goods and services are available in-kind, meaning people who can’t or don’t want to give money can provide printing services  catering services, etc.


Once you have determined how much money you can reasonably expect to raise, next make an assessment of how much you will need to spend.  In order to determine an amount here are some keys to assessing estimated expenditures

  • Political Environment/History—is it a primary or general election.  Primaries generally have fewer voters you will need to contact.  Look at the history of similar races and how many people have voted in recent elections.
  • Who’s in the race and how many—is it a primary with two or eight people that will determine your strategy as well as your budget.
  • Are you a known quantity—if you are already well-known you have an advantage because name identification is critical in helping drive your message.  Candidates not as well known will have to spend more money.
  • How will you contact voters—voters need to hear your message over and over to understand your message.  Using a variety of methods to contact voters is important ie. Mail, radio, television, yard signs, 4X8 signs, brochures, etc.
  • Party expenditures—Will others be spending money on your behalf or that will benefit your campaign? (For example: party or other kinds of slate cards)

Once you have done this initial assessment and have calculated both revenue and expenditures you can craft a budget that will be a useful guide for the campaign. Oftentimes you will have need to adjust your budget during the course of the campaign ­ but changes should be made only when unanticipated events warrant such a change.

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