Political Campaign Budget Reality Check
If there’s one common thread that runs through the progressive movement and Democratic political campaigns, it’s that they are very often operating with a limited budget. This fact makes having a political campaign budget critically important, because you have to be strategic with how your resources are spent and get the most bang for your buck. A political campaign budget can go in an endless series of directions that all lead to a win. But many campaigns get into trouble when they don’t have a written budget or set lofty goals that are impossible to achieve. Doing the work to draft a realistic budget and thinking strategically about when, why, and how your campaign will spend money is key. Below are some guiding principles to building a winning political campaign budget.
How much do I need to raise for my political campaign budget?
Look at past campaign budgets
One great way to start to answer the question of how much you need raise is by looking at what similar campaigns have raised. You also need to consider these past budgets in the context of their past campaigns. Did they have a competitive primary/general election? Was it a multi-candidate field or a one-on-one race? Was it a presidential year or an off-year election? This will help you get a broad sense of what you may need to raise to be successful.
Start with your vote goal
The best place to start drafting a political campaign budget is with the vote numbers. You should dig into past vote history, figure out how many votes you will need to win, and calculate your vote goal. After you do that, you can go to work creating a budget that will help you get to those numbers. During this process you should ask, who are the voters that make up a winning coalition? What’s the best way to reach them? How much do I need to raise to communicate with them via this medium?
Create three different budget levels
When you’re initially drafting a political campaign budget, we recommend that you create three budget levels—a Cadillac, best-case scenario budget, a middle budget that’s very realistic, and your worst-case budget in case fundraising doesn’t go your way. You should then determine how you’ll spend your money within each of these budget scenarios to help you get to a win.
Where does the money come from?
Figure out what you can raise from your network
One exercise we ask campaigns to do early on is to compile a full list of their personal networks and put them all together into one spreadsheet. This includes people connected to you on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as contacts in your cell phone and email lists. Go through each person on the list and assign a dollar amount for how much you think they can give your campaign based on what you know about them and how strong your relationship is. After you’re done, add it up and see what the total is. If the total is 1/3 of the way to the budget that you think you need (likely your mid-level budget), you’re on the right track. If you run a strong campaign and prove viability, you can raise the other 2/3 from your community or donor networks. If you’re not at 1/3 or more of what you need from your personal list, you may need to rethink if this is the right race for you.
Using power circles
Power Circles are an easy way of distilling who you should raise money from and who you should spend your time calling. It starts with list building from your personal network of friends and family; these are your best targets for fundraising and who you should spend the lion’s share of your time calling. The next layer is the ideological layer, or people who may not have as strong of a tie to you personally but broadly share your values. These people include frequent donors, activists, and PACs that align with you on a certain issue. This should be your next priority after you’ve exhausted your personal network. The last layer is the “axe to grind” layer, or people who will support you simply because they have a compelling reason to oppose your opponent. This layer is unpredictable since they don’t have a personal tie to your or your viewpoints necessarily, but they still may be willing to give you money and should at least get a phone call.
When do I need to have the money by?
Think about collections points
When you will have money in-hand can be just as important as how much you raise. When thinking about your budget timing, you should work backwards from collection points. Collection points may be the dates your campaign finance reports are due, or actual voting dates like absentee voting, early voting, and Election Day. These are the specific times when you need to have money by, either to demonstrate your campaign’s viability or to have spent the money to communicate with voters.
Raising early money
It’s our experience with campaign budgeting that a good chunk of your money will come in the door late in the campaign when donors are paying the most attention. Getting money in the door earlier can be a lot tougher. You will frequently be met with the “I’ll revisit this when we get closer” line by many donors on the phone. But having a plan to raise early money is critical because it allows you to pay your staff, build a website, and lay the groundwork for a successful campaign.
What should I spend money on?
70% of your money on voter communication
Many competitive campaigns are at parity when it comes to fundraising and good budgeting can give you a real strategic advantage. What you spend money on is as important as what you raise, and a good rule of thumb is to spend at least 70% of your total political campaign budget on communicating with voters. There’s always a debate of what constitutes “voter communications,” but it’s pretty clear what isn’t communicating with voters, i.e. staff costs, rent, office supplies, etc. Also, for the purpose of your budgeting, signs should really be considered visibility, not voter communication.
Know your primary/dominant medium
The best way to reach voters is to dominate one communications medium at a minimum. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to spend more money on a medium than your opponent, what it means is that you need to spend enough money on one communications medium to achieve adequate saturation. Spreading your money across a lot of different mediums is a strategy that leads to an inadequate level of saturation to reach enough voters at a high enough frequency to make an impact.
Figure out a secondary medium
Your secondary communications medium should complement your dominant medium. To figure out which secondary medium you should use, ask yourself: what is the next medium that best reaches your targeted audience? Is it digital advertising layered on top of a strong direct mail program? Or is it direct mail layered on top of a strong TV buy?
Where can I cut back?
Spending less on office supplies
Office supplies can be a big expense for campaigns. Whenever possible, utilize MiniVAN and technology to input data directly and reduce the need for paper and toner. Reuse paper lists and print on the backsides (just be sure it is clear which is the old vs. new side). Depending on the printer/computer, there may also be settings to reduce the amount of toner you use with each print. When you notice that you are starting to get low on supplies, you can also ask your super-volunteers to bring supplies from home. Many people have a surplus of these items at home and won’t mind chipping in.
Having enough phones to call voters
Depending on your race, burner cell phones may be another big expense for your campaign. When you run out of phones at a phone bank, ask your volunteers with unlimited minute plans to make calls on their personal phones. Some will refuse, but a few will oblige. Always have extra canvassing packets at phone banks and ask volunteers if they would go canvass instead of phone bank if you run out of phones. You can also show volunteers how to make calls using technology like Google Call as a last resort but be forewarned that area codes on these phones will be unfamiliar to recipients and decrease your voter contact.
How much should I spend on signs?
Simply put, political campaign signs are really expensive and can eat into your budget. They also take a bunch of time to put up and distribute to volunteers. But many campaigns can’t get away with doing zero signs (people will complain that they aren’t seeing any and that the campaign isn’t active enough) so we caution campaigns to spend as little as possible on them. Before you purchase signs, make sure you have mapped out exactly where they will go and how many you need so you’re not purchasing signs that will sit around your campaign office.
Developing a political campaign budget can mean making some really difficult choices, but it’s better to have plan and recognize that you can’t do everything than dabbling unsuccessfully in too many arenas. Doing an honest assessment of your resources will mean the difference between winning and losing, so it’s important that you treat your budget as a strategic roadmap to victory.