Running for public office in New Jersey can be an inexpensive project or can run into surprisingly hefty costs. I’ve been involved in successful local election campaigns run on a $500 budget and some that ran over $50,000. Regional or statewide races would likely cost more. After the first draft of this blog post was published, one successful candidate for school board in a small rural district reported that he spent no money on his campaign. I’ve not personally been involved in a campaign that required no financial transactions but it is encouraging to know that it is possible. Obviously that wide variance in experiences makes it difficult to make generalized comments on campaign costs. To address the question from a practical perspective, it may help to break costs down into two general broad functional categories: 1) marketing, and, 2) compliance.
Marketing would include the costs of getting the message out to voters; lawn signs, advertising, events, etc. Most election campaigns have a chairperson, and these duties typically are coordinated be the campaign chairperson. When considering campaign costs, I suggest that the candidate and the campaign chairperson map out a campaign strategy plan that they agree on and then take an extra step of roughing out a budget based on that action plan. Of course the strategy and budget may well change during the campaign, but it provides a starting point. Any amount or strategy that the candidate and committee agree on is OK, it all depends on the specific situation.
Compliance costs would include legal filings, accounting, record-keeping and banking costs. Many of the rules are established by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. This is where I come in as a certified election campaign committee treasurer. All campaigns in New Jersey are required to designate a certified Treasurer. The cost of these functions depends on complexity but, in general, we expect campaigns to run accounting and compliance costs similar to a small business. When I’m involved early in the planning process it is usually easy to suggest steps that minimize the accounting, banking and compliance costs. Since most campaigns now rely heavily on online transactions and social media activities, these online services tend to be the cost drivers in the compliance portion of the campaign cost.
As a general rule, the costs of running a campaign are about the same as operating a small business of similar size and dollar volume. The costs, measured as a percentage of revenue, drop sharply as soon as the entity grows past minimal subsistence. A good source of other information for candidates about New Jersey election campaign requirements is the “Compliance Manual for Candidates“.
I typically help local election candidates establish a campaign without charge, including the formation, banking and first state filing of the campaign committee. That’s just something that I feel that I can offer to my community; support for anyone who wants to throw their hat into the ring and try to make a difference. But after that, I expect the candidate and committee to establish a written plan – even I just a few sentences – and a rough budget that supports the campaign business plan. While I can offer comments that compare costs to other election campaigns, the fundamental campaign strategy, and therefore most of the campaign costs, are completely dependent on the specific situation.