Coming To Terms With The Cost Of Running For City Council

26 February 2019
 Categories: Government & Politics, Blog


Running for local office is one of the best and most accessible ways to get directly involved with the political process, but many candidates are unprepared for the amount of work and financial investment required to run a successful campaign. It is a common misconception that campaigns for local positions such as city council are relatively cheap, but this is not always the case. In fact, local elections can sometimes be very hotly contested.

What Does the Average Campaign Cost?

Unfortunately, pinning down the average cost for a local city council election is difficult since there is so much variation between cities. For small cities, the cost may be very low. For larger cities, it can be significantly more than the life savings of the average American. According to Ballotpedia, competitive races in Seattle could cost as much as $300,000. The average for all large cities is likely closer to $200,000, a number that is still likely to induce sticker shock in many.

How Much Will YOUR Campaign Cost?

Of course, an average by itself is not particularly helpful given how varied local politics can be. It may not be surprising that a large city such as Seattle demands that its candidates spend a huge chunk of change on campaigns, but what about much smaller cities? In reality, the cost is not necessarily directly correlated with the number of voters that you need to reach. If elections in your district are not heavily contested, then your cost per voter is potentially very low. On the other hand, hotly contested districts may require a hefty spend per vote needed.

As a very basic starting point, you will want to determine the percentage of votes required for a successful campaign and the number of actual votes that this translates into. Be careful that you don't treat this as a simpler exercise than it actually is. There may be more than one seat open in your district, so the actual number of votes that you require is unlikely to be as straightforward as fifty percent plus one. It may be instructive to research past races and, if possible, speak with past candidates who have run in your district.

This number is your starting point for estimating the remainder of your campaign costs. Although it may be slightly counterintuitive if you haven't run for office before, it is important to consider each vote as costing a roughly fixed dollar amount based on outreach and materials needed to reach that voter. In highly competitive races, this can be as high as $30 per voter.

Where Are You Going to Spend Your Money?

Determining how much your campaign will cost per voter largely comes down to understanding where your money will be spent. For local elections, this is usually pretty straightforward. In addition to a well-designed website, bureaucratic fees for filing your campaign, and possible staffing needs, the vast majority of your campaign dollars will be spent on advertising and materials for door-to-door campaigning.

The hard truth is that you can spend as much on these materials as you want, and theoretically, every dollar spent will help you to reach more voters. The key to efficiently managing campaign costs is to avoid overspending. You need to reach exactly as many voters as are necessary to win your election, and each vote beyond that is money that you technically did not need to spend. Consult with past candidates and local party officials to get the best estimates that you can of the average cost to reach voters in your district and be prepared to spend at least that much, plus a healthy margin for safety.

Where Are You Going to GET Your Money?

An arguably even more important question that how your money will be spent is where the money will come from in the first place. The obvious answer is that it will come from donors, but actually getting these donations will be one of the largest challenges that your campaign will face. In addition to contacting friends and family, you will be required to leverage your existing professional and personal network to its limits. Consulting with local party officials is absolutely vital as well and may be one of the best tools that you will have for fundraising.

It is also important to avoid becoming overconfident in your fundraising ability. Avoid personal loans and other potentially risky avenues to quickly raise funding. Some candidates believe that they must take financial risks in order to get a head start on their campaign, but it is generally better to fail at fundraising and try again in a future election than it is to personally bankrupt yourself in a failed bid. The lessons you take away from even an unsuccessful fundraising effort will be invaluable for your future career in politics.

Contact campaigns like Gooding for Harlem to learn more about campaign financing.