Presidential elections are expensive. It may not seem like it should cost so much to stand on a stage and tell people why they should vote for you. But getting your name out there tends to run up quite the tab. When you sit down to consider how much it will all cost, and you figure in staff, airfare, radio/TV/print ads, speaking engagements, and everything else, it is easy to see that those costs can skyrocket rapidly.

Nearly every presidential election costs more than the ones before it, but the spending pace has been especially ferocious in the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2012, the amount spent by the winning candidate's campaign nearly quadrupled, and Political Action Committee (PAC) spending has similarly exploded. National party spending has increased more reasonably, though the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Democratic National Committee (DNC) still spend much more to elect candidates than they did even 15 years ago.

Key Takeaways

  • The cost of campaigning to be elected president has steadily risen over the last 100 years, but particularly so between 2000 and 2012, when spending by the candidates more than quadrupled.
  • In the 2016 campaign, eventual winner Republican Donald Trump and runner-up Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton spent a combined $1.16 billion; including all other candidates, a total of $2.4 billion was spent.

The Growth in Campaign Spending

Even when adjusted for inflation, the amount of money it takes to become president has increased more than 250-fold from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama. Even more striking, the trajectory of the graph steepens as the years progress, suggesting not only campaign spending itself but the growth rate in campaign spending is accelerating rapidly.

In 1992, the combined campaigns of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot spent $192.2 million ($300 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). For the 2000 election, the closest race in modern history, neither George W. Bush, the winner nor Al Gore, who lost amid a morass of controversy in Florida, spent more than $200 million. To win the 2004 election, George W. Bush spent $345 million, which, at the time, was the most expensive campaign in history. The record didn't last long: In 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the total amount of money spent by and for Barack Obama came in at $730 million, far surpassing Republican nominee John McCain, who spent a mere $333 million—and more than double Bush's outlay.

A mere four years later, for the 2012 election, President Obama spent $775.4 million to win re-election; the DNC added an additional $285.8 million, while PAC spending on his behalf totaled $74.7 million, making the total spent to re-elect the president $985.7 million. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a losing effort, spent $460.2 million on his White House bid, with another $378.8 million coming from the RNC and $153 million from PACs, bringing the total to $992 million.

Usually, the candidate who spends the most money wins. However, that did not prove true during the 2016 elections, when the runner-up, Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, spent $768 million, nearly twice as much as the eventual winner, Republican candidate Donald Trump, who spent $398 million.

The 2016 Election

At the time, many estimates for the presidential election in 2016 said it would cost at least $3 billion; some even put the number as high as $10 billion. At $2.4 billion, it fell a bit short of that but was still a staggering amount. Among the two nominees, Hillary Clinton's campaign spent a total of $768 million, vastly more than the $398 million Donald Trump's campaign spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That $1.16 billion total is actually lower than the 2012 election's $1.97 billion total, the first decline in decades, though it doesn't take into account the value of "earned media" (that is, free media) coverage that the candidates (especially Trump) benefited from. Federal Election Commission filings show that Trump personally contributed a total of $66 million toward his campaign, while Clinton contributed $1.4 million of her own money.

$1 billion

The amount the Trump re-election campaign has set as a fundraising target for the 2020 elections.

The Bottom Line

Aside from inflation, what's contributed to the ever-spiraling cost of running for President? It's the sentiment that the more a candidate spends on his or her election campaign, the more likely he or she is to win. The name and face get in front of more people, and, in the end, the one that people see the most of is the one that they vote for. Although the Trump-Clinton election was a different case, the biggest spender typically ends up winning.

Since he is planning to run for re-election in 2020, President Donald Trump chose not to terminate his campaign committee. He has targeted $1 billion as the total he would like to raise for his campaign. The Trump campaign said it raised $30 million in the first quarter of 2019, bringing the campaign's cash on hand to $40.8 million.

So, if you're planning to make a run for the White House, you'll want to start saving your money now.