After a political campaign is over, the volunteers leave, the printers are turned off, and the buttons are put away, where does the money go? 

Candidates and Political Action Committees – super PACs – established in their name collect millions in contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, candidates in the 2016 presidential race amassed a total of $1.5 billion in donations, and their super PACs collected $618 million. President Donald Trump chose not to terminate his campaign committee since he is running for re-election in 2020.

Candidate Campaign Committees

These are the official committees run by the candidate and their campaign team. The Federal Election Commission has put into place rules that control how money is spent after a candidate bows out or the election process ends.

No Personal Use

After all debts are settled, a candidate is not allowed to use the remaining funds for personal uses, which are defined as “a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.” In other words, if the expense exists independent of the campaign or being an elected official, campaign funds may not be used. Expenses that are automatically considered personal use include household items, mortgage or rent for a personal residence and salary payments to the candidate's family, unless the family member provides a bona fide service to the campaign and the payment reflects the value for the service in the free market.

Permissible Uses

The contributions can be used in the following ways:

  • Donations to charities, as long as the candidate does not receive compensation from the organizations and the donation is not used by the charity to benefit the candidate.
  • A donation of a maximum of $2000 to another presidential candidate.
  • Unlimited transfers to a local, state, or national political party committee.
  • Donations to state and local candidates or transfer to a future election campaign committee of the same candidate (Bernie Sanders transferred $1.5 million collected from his Senate campaign committee to his presidential committee).

General Election Refunds

If you donated more than $2,700 to a presidential candidate who dropped out of the race before the general election, you can anticipate a refund. According to the FEC rules, official candidate committees must return any money contributed towards the general election if they do not win the primaries. Since an individual can contribute a maximum of $2,700 for each election, primary and general, any more than $2,700 would have been allocated to the general. 

Super PACs

Contributions, ideally, should not be lying around. They should be spent as quickly as they come in to maximize the chances of the candidate. However, a super PAC can have money left if those at the helm were reluctant or inept. “Where you see a lot of money left over in the super PAC after the candidate drops out, that will probably tell you something about how seriously the super PAC took the race to begin with,” Robert Kelner, chair of the Election and Political Law Practice Group at the law firm Covington & Burling, told The New York Times. 

Super PACs cannot coordinate with a federal candidate or donate to a national political party committee. They can, however, continue to use the money to support the same candidate in other elections or another federal candidate in future elections. Also, the treasurer of the super PAC is not legally obligated to refund any of the money to donors but often do. The Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise said it will refund $12 million to donors.