How to Create a Campaign Budget

If you need to build a campaign budget that sees you all the way through to the election, you’ve come to the right place. Today we’ll talk about why you need to budget, what kind of expenses to budget for, and how to ensure that your campaign dollars will see you through to the end.

If you need to build a campaign budget that sees you all the way through to the election, you’ve come to the right place. Today we’ll talk about why you need to budget, what kind of expenses to budget for, and how to ensure that your campaign dollars will see you through to the end.

We’ll also discuss what a typical campaign budget looks like, how to find your starting point and where to go from there. Finally, we’ll discuss how to reconcile your budget with your fundraising dollars, talk about compliance, and what your quarterly reports and cash on hand have to say about the feasibility of your political campaign. 

Why Do You Need to Budget?

You’re going to need to budget if you want to make it across to the finish line. You’re probably thinking, “Duh!” but just for the sake of argument, let’s go over why it’s important to properly budget. Many campaigns begin to run out of money too early on in their campaign and end up without enough funds to create the full-bodied GOTV (Get Out the Vote) efforts that they intended to have. It may seem like a no-brainer, but throughout your political campaign, you’ll have hundreds of expenditures to account for and those items will add up. 

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You need to keep track of everything if you want to ensure every cog is running smoothly and that you’ll have enough money to afford the advertising, communications, and voter contact you’ll need. Because every cent needs to be accounted for, you should ensure that your campaign manager has experience managing campaign budgets. Campaign managers with years of experience with voter contact and communications experience have been overlooked in favor of those with budget management experience, and it’s no wonder why.

If you don’t keep track of your expenditures and fundraising efforts, there are two outcomes that could happen. One, you could run out of funds before you are able to finish, leaving you to try to slim down your efforts when they matter the most, or two, you can finish the race with a massive amount of debt to repay. Avoid both of these situations by getting your budget worked out in advance. 

Types of Expenses to Budget For

There are two kinds of expenses in a political campaign: persuasive expenses and non-persuasive expenses. Persuasive expense is all the spending that you’ll do focusing on voter communications, so think expenses for billboards, rallies, canvassing, etc. Non-persuasive expenses are overheads (such as paying for your headquarters). 

To give you an idea of what that means, your communications may fit into both categories. The communications (advertising, marketing, and email campaigns) will fall into the category of a persuasive expense, but the salary for your communications manager will fall under the category of a non-persuasive expense.

You’ll need to track both expense types, so you may find yourself (or your campaign manager) needing to segment each disbursement into these two categories. 

The Backward Approach to Campaign Finance

It may sound crazy, but looking at your budget backward can actually be very beneficial to your campaign. What this means in practice is that you’ll put your first funds toward your last campaign endeavor (GOTV). This technique is useful because it ensures that you don’t run out of money at the most crucial point of the campaign. 

What is a Typical Budget for Campaigns?

It’s imperative that you do your research before deciding upon your campaign budget. There are multiple factors to consider, including the type of race you’re running, how competitive it is, fundraising capability, and your status in the campaign. Are you a challenger or are you looking to be re-elected? According to the New York Times, the campaign dollar is more powerful in the hands of a challenger than it is for the incumbent. In fact, it almost seems that incumbents should minimize spending in all the ways they can, based upon the idea that the more incumbents spend, the more likely they are to lose. (The Numero blog has a handy breakdown of what a sample campaign budget should look like, available for download here.)

Allocate 70% of your money on voter communication, and determine what medium(s) you want to communicate with your voters on. Try to keep it to a minimum (one to two social media platforms) so that you can gain sufficient saturation there.

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Find Your Starting Point and Move Forward

First, look at past campaign budgets. As we stated above, evaluate these budgets in the context of their campaigns. Think about whether they had a competitive election, whether it was a multi-candidate race or one-on-one. If it was a presidential year or an off-year election, that can also have an effect on the budget.

Find out the past voter history and see how many votes you’ll need to win. Calculate your vote goal and create a budget to help you reach that number of voters. Ask yourself how to reach the voters that will comprise your winning coalition and how much you’ll need to raise in order to communicate with them.

It can be beneficial to create three budget levels for yourself: a best-case scenario, a realistic middle-ground, and a worst-case scenario to work with. This will offer you more flexibility (should you run into any hiccups) and grant you confidence that this is doable. 

Other Considerations for Your Budget

Remember that you’ll need to stay compliant with campaign finance laws by reporting and tracking your receipts. Keeping receipts is a crucial part of the process. Another vital component of campaign finance is to report your political fundraising totals every quarter or semester, including your cash on hand (COH). Try to maximize your COH by deferring costs until after the quarter ends, if possible. 

To develop a campaign budget, start by researching other similar campaigns and find out how many votes you need to win. Taking a backward approach and creating three budgeting levels can help ensure that you have the funds you need by election day. Check in regularly to ensure you’re where you need to be funds-wise, and adjust if you need to. Stay on top of your financial budget and you’ll have a far easier time with your campaign (and have more likelihood of winning) than if you recklessly blow your funds at the outset. Need help with your campaign? Nationbuilder is a fantastic resource to help you win your election. They’ve got the software, tools, and experts that can help build an amazing, effective campaign website!

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