Presidential elections are an expensive venture. At first glance, it may not appear that standing on a stage telling people why they should vote for you would be costly. However, the costs associated with getting a candidate's name out there nationwide for all to become familiar with can be quite expensive.

The staff, airfare, and advertising, including radio and television advertisements, can cause a campaign's costs to skyrocket rapidly. Nearly every presidential election has cost more than the ones before it, but the pace of spending has accelerated in the 21st century. 

Key Takeaways

  • The cost of campaigning to be elected president has steadily risen over the last 100 years.
  • Between 2000 and 2012, campaign spending by the candidates more than quadrupled.
  • In the 2020 presidential campaign, President Donald Trump and Joe Biden spent a combined $1.3 billion.
  • Including all of the candidates in 2016, the election cost a total of $2.4 billion.

Understanding the Growth in Campaign Spending

Even when adjusted for inflation—or rising prices—the amount of money it takes to become president has increased more than 250-fold from the time Abraham Lincoln ran for president. 

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. 

Election Spending

In 1992, the combined campaigns of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot spent $195.6 million ($360 million in inflation-adjusted dollars). For the 2000 election, one of the closest races 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 was the most expensive campaign in history at the time. 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 $722.4 million to win re-election. The DNC added an additional $292.2 million, while PAC spending on his behalf totaled $131.7 million, making the total spent to re-elect the president $1.14 billion. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in a losing effort, spent $449.5 million on his White House bid, with another $386.1 million coming from the RNC and $418.6 million from PACs, bringing the total to $1.254 billion.

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 $450 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 $768.5 million, vastly more than the $440 million Donald Trump's campaign spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

That $2.4 billion total is actually lower than the 2012 election's $2.6 billion total, 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 set as a fundraising target for the 2020 election.

The 2020 Election

Donald Trump filed for re-election on the day of his inauguration in 2016 and raised a total of $1.1 billion for his unsuccessful re-election effort. This amount includes donations to his official campaign committee and outside groups like single-candidate super PACs and hybrid PACs or Carey Committees. Top donors include America First Action and Preserve America PAC.

President Joseph Biden, meanwhile, raised significantly more money than Trump, with $1.6 billion of campaign funds. This amount also includes donations to his official campaign committee and outside groups like single-candidate super PACs and hybrid PACs. Top donors include Priorities USA Action and Future Forward USA.

Biden spent significantly more on his campaign than Trump did at $775.629 million. However, he still had $162 million cash on hand by Election Day.

In total, Biden and Trump spent a combined $1.3 billion.

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 their election campaign, the more likely they are 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.

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