The Real Cost of Running for Office in the United States.


(John Cole/The Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune)

According to OpenSecrets.org, candidates in Kentucky’s Senate race have raised the most money to fight an election this fall – <$90m. Although the incumbent is current Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, the following top nine Senate seats have each raised over $26m. My state – Arizona – comes in second.


A few days ago, in conversation with a friend who works in Great Britain, I learnt that candidates for UK Parliament need only a deposit of £500 to appear on the ballot and get their money back if they receive 5% of the vote. I wondered if people in the UK realised the costs of running for office here in the United States.


In 2008, then Democratic presidential-candidate Barack Obama spent over $760m on getting to the White House ($914.6m in 2020). This represents $10.94 per vote – $4.97 more than his immediate Republican rival John McCain. By comparison, total spending in the 2017 UK general election was a mere £41.6m.


British election spending is regulated by the Electoral Commission. Each party at a general election can spend a maximum of £30,000 per constituency they put up a candidate in. Furthermore, any single donation above £7,500 must be declared.


In the United States, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulates campaign finance activity. Though there are limits on the amount individuals can donate to a primary or general election campaign, there are no restrictions on the amount the candidates themselves can pour into their races. Many candidates emerge from the business world to run for state-wide and federal office and so have the capital available to do this.

Other loopholes include ‘shadow campaigns’ and the infamous Pacs and SuperPacs. These are not formally associated with a candidate’s campaign, but often work to support and complement the existing effort with robotic calls and online and tv advertisements. Unlike the official campaigns, SuperPacs can take unlimited donations from businesses, individuals and labor unions.


Donald Trump’s 2016 bid for the White House was a refreshing change in terms of campaign financing. The candidate used his own money far more than his other Republican rivals at the primaries. This gave President Trump the space to accuse his competitors of ‘selling out’ to businesses and that he, Trump, was the only authentic voice on the debate stage. Of course, it worked.


As an American, I am surprised not only by the low cost of British campaigns, but the shortness of their duration. When the States has an endless stream of campaign activity, the idea of wrapping up the contest in just six weeks is very inviting.


Amelia is a Republican activist from Phoenix, Arizona.

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