Articles

The New Price Of Running For President

March 18, 2015

While juggling questions of a candidate’s performance, message and organization, every Republican presidential strategist also spends lots of time thinking about money. First comes this question: How many dollars must a candidate have to be competitive in the opening round of 2016 contests? 

It’s tough to settle on a number for the buy-in now. Few states have passed laws setting their primary or caucus date, so it may be months until the calendar is locked in. It’s also difficult to decide how much of each kind of activity is necessary. For example, how much television advertising should be run? How much should be spent on the Internet? How much mail is needed, and how many phone banks?

One way to get a rough sense of the likely buy-in to the GOP race is to examine the cost of running four weeks of television in each of the sanctioned contests in February 2016—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. These first four states collectively have 133 delegates, or only 5.4% of the 2,471 delegates likely to be at the convention.

A week of television—enough for an average viewer to see an ad about 10 times—in the four states would cost roughly $4 million, according to GOP TV buyers. It’s reasonable to expect most campaigns would look for at least four weeks of TV, making the cost to run ads in the February states right around $16 million. 

Of course, TV is not the only way campaigns would convey messages. In addition, the prices TV stations are quoting are for third-party groups like Super PACs. The law guarantees candidates the lowest rate, which stations are loath to estimate now. 

But even if candidates paid less for TV, the additional costs for Internet activity, mail, phones and radio would mean candidates could still spend close to $20 million to mount strong campaigns in all the February contests. 

According to GOP strategists who are monitoring the calendar, another 11 states are likely to vote March 1—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia—with Hawaii, Michigan and Ohio following on March 8. There are 744 delegates at stake in the first half of March, or 24.3% of the convention’s total. The cost for a week of TV in the March 1 states is nearly $11 million. For states voting a week later, it is over $3 million.

It isn’t wise (or even doable) for every campaign to blanket every state with television ads. For example, the high cost of Boston television means it is three times as expensive per delegate to advertise in Massachusetts (which has 42 delegates and costs $1.3 million a week) as it is in Oklahoma (which has 43 delegates and costs just $406,000 for one week). But even if a campaign trims spending in some areas, the early March contests are likely to add another $20 million to $30 million for three to four weeks of TV and other campaign activity.

This poses problems for campaigns that can raise enough money for a February buy-in but cannot replenish their coffers for March unless they win dramatic early upsets that give them momentum, create a bump in the polls and cause money to flood in from donors big and small. Even then, because every state that votes before March 15 must award its delegates proportionally, no one candidate receives enough delegates to pull away from the pack by mid-March. 

Then comes the Ides of March, with winner-take-all primaries likely in Florida, Illinois and Missouri. These three contests combined have almost twice as many delegates—220—as all the February states. A week of television in all three will cost some $4.73 million, making the tab $10 million or more to be competitive in those states. 

Before the first voters are rallied to the polls, there’s the cost of getting to next year. In 2015, every campaign will spend money to move their candidate around, open headquarters, raise money, build state organizations, recruit volunteers, identify voters and prepare policy advice, among other things. This can suck up lots of cash. For example, Mitt Romney spent $36.4 million of the $56.3 million he raised in 2011, leaving $20 million in the bank on Jan. 1, 2012. Former speaker Newt Gingrich spent $10.5 million of the $12.6 million he raised in 2011, leaving him with just $2.1 million on New Year’s 2012.

So campaigns now face complicated decisions. If they spend too much this year and have little left over for next year’s battles, they are dead. Which is why every campaign is grappling with spending priorities and how to squirrel away cash. They are also thinking about a relatively new and vital element, Super PACs, a subject I will address next week.

A version of this article appeared March 19, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The New Price Of Running For President and online at WSJ.com.

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