Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

When presidential campaigns end, what happens to the leftover money?

Andrew Yang

"If there's anything left over after all the bills are paid, the candidate has a few options," explains Richard Briffault.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Briffault is a professor at Columbia Law School.

Andrew Yang and Michael Bennet are the latest Democrats who have ended their campaigns for president.

What happens to the money they have raised, but not yet spent?

The amounts could be substantial. Financial reports submitted to the Federal Election Commission indicate that as of Dec. 31, candidates who had already dropped out still had plenty in the bank. Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas dropped out Nov. 1, but at year's end still had $360,000 in the bank. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who dropped out Dec. 3, reported having $1.3 million available.

Other candidates who dropped out in January had large sums on hand not long before they ended their campaigns: Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro had $950,000 on Dec. 31, and dropped out two days later. Less than two weeks before they exited, writer Marianne Williamson had $330,000 and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey had $4.2 million.

I teach and write about campaign finance law. There is one clear rule about that money: Candidates can't use it for personal expenses, like mortgage payments, groceries, clothing purchases or vacations. But there are a lot of other options, both within politics and outside of it.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

The first use for money from a candidate who has just quit the campaign is generally to pay the cost of winding things up. Just because someone announces they're out, their expenses don't stop right away. They may still owe rent on office space, as well as fees for services like polling and transportation and for staff salaries.

Some campaigns max out their credit cards, or take out loans to fill their accounts, and those still need to be repaid.

Candidates whose campaigns have ended but who are still handling outstanding expenses need to keep filing campaign finance reports with the FEC. Once those expenses are paid, there may not be much left.

At times, candidates need to keep fundraising after they drop out, just to pay off the bills they ran up while running. Six months after they dropped out of the 2012 presidential nomination race, failed Republican candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were still working to pay off their campaign debts. Former presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards took years to pay off their campaign debts.

Cory BookerCory Booker can use money left over from his presidential campaign to run for reelection to the Senate.AP Photo/Patrick Semanksy

If there's anything left over after all the bills are paid, the candidate has a few options.

For some politicians, the most likely use is to help pay for their next campaign. Booker, for instance, is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Once his presidential campaign has paid off any debts it may owe, he can transfer the remaining money to his senatorial reelection campaign fund.

If he, or any other candidate, wants to run for president again in the future, it's easy enough to transfer the funds to a committee for the 2024 campaign season.

A former candidate can also use any excess funds to create a so-called "leadership PAC," which is a political committee that can be controlled by the former candidate but is not used to support that person's campaigns. Instead, it backs a political agenda – including other candidates – the candidate supports. Leadership PACs have been criticized for functioning as "slush funds" for politicians to spend on travel and entertainment they can't buy with regular campaign donations.

Instead of using the money for the candidate's own political purposes, people who drop out can donate their money to other campaigns or candidates. There are no limits on how much they can give to a national, state or local party committee – such as the Democratic National Committee.

They can also give money to state and local candidates, depending on state campaign finance laws, or up to $2,000 to each of one or more candidates for federal office.

A former candidate can also donate surplus funds to charity. This seems most likely to occur when a candidate is retiring from public life. For instance, when he left the Senate Joseph Lieberman transferred funds from his campaign fund and his leadership PAC to a college scholarship fund for high school students from his state, Connecticut. He used other leftover campaign money to organize his political and campaign papers to donate to the Library of Congress.

A former candidate with excess funds has two more possibilities. She can do nothing at all and just keep the cash in the bank. In 2014, an analysis found ex-candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, had as much as $100 million in unused campaign funds just waiting for account holders to decide what to do.

If the person really doesn't want all that cash on hand, the law is vague on what's next – it can be used "for any other lawful purpose," besides personal use. For example, former Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts helped fund a document archive for his former colleague, Barney Frank.

Read More

Trump and Biden at the debate

Our political dysfunction was on display during the debate in the simple fact of the binary choice on stage: Trump vs Biden.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The debate, the political duopoly and the future of American democracy

Johnson is the executive director of the Election Reformers Network, a national nonpartisan organization advancing common-sense reforms to protect elections from polarization.

The talk is all about President Joe Biden’s recent debate performance, whether he’ll be replaced at the top of the ticket and what it all means for the very concerning likelihood of another Trump presidency. These are critical questions.

But Donald Trump is also a symptom of broader dysfunction in our political system. That dysfunction has two key sources: a toxic polarization that elevates cultural warfare over policymaking, and a set of rules that protects the major parties from competition and allows them too much control over elections. These rules entrench the major-party duopoly and preclude the emergence of any alternative political leadership, giving polarization in this country its increasingly existential character.

Keep ReadingShow less
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Voters should be able to take the measure of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., since he is poised to win millions of votes in November.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

Kennedy should have been in the debate – and states need ranked voting

Richie is co-founder and senior advisor of FairVote.

CNN’s presidential debate coincided with a fresh batch of swing-state snapshots that make one thing perfectly clear: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may be a longshot to be our 47th president and faces his own controversies, yet the 10 percent he’s often achieving in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and other battlegrounds could easily tilt the presidency.

Why did CNN keep him out with impossible-to-meet requirements? The performances, mistruths and misstatements by Joe Biden and Donald Trump would have shocked Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who managed to debate seven times without any discussion of golf handicaps — a subject better fit for a “Grumpy Old Men” outtake than one of the year’s two scheduled debates.

Keep ReadingShow less
I Voted stickers

Veterans for All Voters advocates for election reforms that enable more people to participate in primaries.

BackyardProduction/Getty Images

Veterans are working to make democracy more representative

Proctor, a Navy veteran, is a volunteer with Veterans for All Voters.

Imagine this: A general election with no negative campaigning and four or five viable candidates (regardless of party affiliation) competing based on their own personal ideas and actions — not simply their level of obstruction or how well they demonize their opponents. In this reformed election process, the candidate with the best ideas and the broadest appeal will win. The result: The exhausted majority will finally be well-represented again.

Keep ReadingShow less
Person voting at a dropbox in Washington, D.C.

A bill moving through Congress would only allow U.S. citizens to vote in D.C. municipal eletions.

Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

The battle over noncitizen voting in America's capital

Rogers is the “data wrangler” at BillTrack50. He previously worked on policy in several government departments.

Should you be allowed to vote if you aren’t an American citizen? Or according to the adage ‘No taxation without representation’, if you pay taxes should you get to choose the representatives who help spend those tax dollars? Those questions are at the heart of the debate over a bill to restrict voting to U.S. citizens.

Keep ReadingShow less
people walking through a polling place

Election workers monitor a little-used polling place in Sandy Springs, Ga., during the state's 2022 primary.

Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What November election? Half of the U.S. House is already decided.

Troiano is the executive director ofUnite America, a philanthropic venture fund that invests in nonpartisan election reform to foster a more representative and functional government. He’s also the author of “The Primary Solution.”

Last month, Americans were treated to an embarrassing spectacle: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) tradingpersonal insults related to “fake eyelashes” and a “bleach blonde bad built butch body” during a late-night committee hearing. Some likened it to Bravo’s “Real Housewives” reality TV series, and wondered how it was possible that elected officials could act that way and still be elected to Congress by the voters.

The truth is, the vast majority of us don’t actually elect our House members — not even close. Less than 10 percent of voters in Crockett’s district participated in her 2024 Democratic primary, which all but guaranteed her re-election in the safe blue district. Greene ran unopposed in her GOP primary — meaning she was re-elected without needing to win a single vote. The nearly 600,000 voters in her overwhelmingly red district were denied any meaningful choice. Both contests were decided well before most voters participate in the general election.

Keep ReadingShow less