Quick notes:

  • How much money needed for a successful campaign depends on the office and the amount of constituents within the district.
  • Debt isn’t uncommon post-campaign.
  • Funds needed often deter many potential candidates from running.


Even politicians have debt

It’s not uncommon for candidates to have campaign debt after an election. Take Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s 2016 presidential bid, for instance. The man asked supporters for donations to help get him out of more than $1.2 million in campaign debt. Forty-five dollars got you a T-shirt, but donors couldn’t select a size or color due to lack of resources, reported Daily Kos.

Not every political hopeful is as open about their campaign debt — let alone brave enough to offer donors a subpar incentive. However, the debt can deter a candidate from running in the future or even running in the first place.

Campaign debt is more common than you think

Candidates falling into campaign debt is “decently common” says Dallin Young, a political consultant in San Diego, California. Young has worked on almost 30 campaigns, including Scott Peters’ 2014 congressional campaign.

“A lot of (candidates), they’ll try not to get too far into debt, especially in the primary,” says Young. “But it does happen more frequently than I think should.”

It’s likely that some of the 2020 Democratic candidates and Republican candidates vying for a chance to be their party’s presidential candidate might end up in some campaign debt. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton paid off debt for four years after running in 2008. (Track how much the 2020 Democratic candidates are raising at Politico.)

“A lot of (candidates), they’ll try not to get too far into debt, especially in the primary,” says Young. “But it does happen more frequently than I think should.”

Running a successful campaign requires lotsa $$$

How much candidates need to spend is dependent on the position one is vying for as well as the number of voters within a district. Young says that a city council member in San Diego might need $200,000 to $350,000 to run a successful campaign.

A candidate’s wallet has got to be fatter if they’re running in, say, a congressional or Senate race. Presidential candidates, of course, raise a ton of cash too.

Take the 2018 Texas Senate race, for instance. Incumbent Ted Cruz ended up raising $45,260,806 and spending about $45,582,260 on his winning campaign.

Candidates that win like Cruz are likely to have a less difficult time getting rid of any campaign debt. If you lose, it’s a lot harder to raise money to get rid of those debts.

“The thinking is that if you’re really close to the end, it’s okay to go into debt because if you win, it’ll be easier for you to get that money back or to raise as an elected official versus a losing candidate, if you will,” says Young.

Potential debt discourages potential candidates

Debt is a part of the freshman congressional experience, says an article by Niv M. Sultan in OpenSecrets.org. In 2017, the median debt for freshmen members of Congress was $73,893. The debt can pay off — if you win — but it isn’t worth the risk for some aspiring politicians.

That’s not to say that non-wealthy candidates can’t run for office. The most visible individuals have been Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and former Georgia House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams. Ocasio-Cortez famously beat incumbent James Crowley with a low-budget campaign, and Abrams only settled her IRS debt in 2019.

If politicians do go into debt with a campaign, it doesn’t prevent them from running again altogether, but it makes fundraising hard in future campaigns.

“I think that it certainly will give their donors pause when they are asking for more funds, seeing as how they might not have managed their expenses the best on the last go-round,” says Young.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Politicians with contribution excess are supposed to donate it charity or use it for their campaign, but not all do …

Not all in politics had thunderous voices — take Teddy Roosevelt, for instance.

I wouldn’t be able to vote in U.S. politics if this didn’t happen.