The Dangers of Self-Funding Your Political Campaign

While there's a clear upside, there's three big pitfalls to avoid

Do you have the financial ability to provide self-funding for your campaign for elected office?

political-campaign-danger

I’m not talking about a really small race where it’ll cost less than $5,000 to run a successful campaign.

I’m talking about races where a full-blown campaign requires spending $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 or more to win election.

Can you honestly write that check, never recoup the money, and not impact your standard of living not at all?

If your answer is No, you’re not alone.

Most candidates don’t have the ability to self-fund.  They have to work their butts on fundraising.

If that describes you, then this article doesn’t apply to you and you should immediately read this article about jumpstarting your fundraising. 

But if your answer is Yes, and you can write the checks to completely fund your campaign, then let me first say congratulations.

You’ve likely been successful in your endeavors and have learned how to save and invest the money you’ve made. That’s a discipline that’s sorely lacking across America.

Given the budget deficits and amassing debts across America, we need more people like you in office.

That being said, let me now caution you about self-funding your political campaign.

Candidates who self-fund frequently fall into three categories: lazy, elitist, or dumb.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking none of these words describe you. They probably don’t. However, they do describe the behavior of self-funded candidates I’ve seen far too often.

Self-Funding can make a candidate Lazy

Candidates who cannot self-fund typically split their time between fundraising, getting endorsements and canvassing precincts.

When a candidate self-funds they don’t have to go through the hard work of identifying and persuading donors to contribute to their campaign.

A self-funded candidate often makes the argument that by writing a check to cover the campaign they will be able to spend more time picking up endorsements and going door to door since they don’t need to chase donors and dollars.

The opposite frequently happens.

Fundraising requires a great deal of discipline and establishes a Teflon shield on candidates that enables them to endure rejection when someone refuses to support them.

That discipline and shield developed from fundraising will enable a candidate to more aggressively pursue endorsements and to fanatically walk precincts.

Self-funded candidates have a hard time stepping out of their comfort zone, which you have to do if you’re going to run for office and win.

Their endorsements generally consist of the low-hanging fruit but nothing more.

They usually don’t wear out a pair of shoes walking the different neighborhoods of their community.

Since writing a check handled the fundraising aspect of the campaign, self-funded candidates mistakenly believe that money will handle the other aspects of their campaigns.

They outsource the hard work of their campaigns and often lose to lesser funded candidates who went out there and worked their butts off.

In my home state of California, I’ve seen this happen quite a bit in top of the ticket races.

Meg Whitman, Al Checchi, and Michael Huffington are great examples of self-funded candidates who had more than enough money to win their races but got their heads handed to them by their opponents.

Self-Funding can make a candidate look Elitist

In America, a lot of people want to be rich, but almost no one puts in the hard work to become rich.

And nobody trusts the rich. Not even the rich.

Bernie Sanders has kept Hillary Clinton from sewing up the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination because he’s questioned her finances.  He’s made her look out of touch and elitist.

Donald Trump, the richest of all candidates in both major parties, has managed to avoid the stigma by attacking the “establishment” and the mega-rich elites that he belongs too.

In popular elections, coming off as elitist is dangerous to one’s chances of victory.

Once you self-fund your campaign, you automatically classify yourself as rich. This will automatically arouse the suspicions of the voters and create a certain level of distrust.

You will argue that self-funding allows you to be your own person beholden to no one but the people. Trump has done this effectively, even as he raises money instead of spending a lot of his own at this point in the race.

But is anyone really free of influence from others, even when there isn’t money involved?

We each  have our own views and experiences that have shaped our opinions and the positions we have.

You will likely support the desires of people you had positive experiences with and oppose the desires of those you think of negatively.

It’s human nature. You’re not above it.

Few elected officials have acted like Abraham Lincoln and built a team of rivals.

Even fewer have emulated FDR and made policy adamantly opposed by their own lifelong peers.

Leaders like them are few and far between. That’s why we remember them and they only come around every generation – if even then.

Self-Funding can make a candidate seem Dumb

Some voters will think of you as dumb for spending thousands of dollars to run for a job that pays hardly anything and comes with a never ending stream of complaints.

That’s alright, public office is mostly a thankless job whether you self-fund or not.

The people you need to be concerned about viewing you as dumb are your consultants.

As much as every consultant wants to win the campaigns they are hired to advise, too many of them are not concerned about the outcome of the race.

They’re only concerned with how much money they can make.

The prospect of self-funded candidates makes many consultants drool. Self-funded candidates have paid for consultants to buy luxury cars, build swimming pools, and take a few weeks of vacation in Hawaii.

When a campaign budget is not an issue because the candidate has already filled the coffers with their own money, consultants do not always do their best work.

Money’s not an issue so they’re not worried about making it last as long as they normally would. They can always go back and ask you for just a little bit more.

A common plea from the consultant for the funds to do one last mail piece or one last commercial is typically an indication that this has happened.

They didn’t watch the bottom line during the campaign and now can’t afford to finish because money wasn’t an issue.

Now you’re in a bind. If you don’t spend the money, you could lose. And that’s plain dumb.

Final Thoughts on Self-Funding

If you have the financial wherewithal to completely fund your campaign, it’s up to you as to whether or not you want to do it.

While I’ve listed the three biggest dangers of self-funding, there are upsides as well.

If you have the discipline, you can spend almost all of your time connecting with voters and opinion leaders to gain their support.

You won’t be beholden to any special interests, even if you agree with any particular interest most of the time.

And you won’t have to worry about not meeting your campaign’s budget goals.

Still, self-funding is not something I recommend.

I personally don’t think anyone should spend any of their own money running for office.

I believe there is a key part of campaigning and connecting with supporters that come from fundraising.

When that’s missing, there’s often a spark of urgency that’s missing in the candidate that negatively impacts their race.

Now that all of these cautionary notes are out of the way, there are a couple points in a campaign where self-funding does come in handy.

At the beginning and the end of the campaign.

Campaigns are always cash strapped when they start up and when Election Day is closing in rapidly.

Being able to give your campaign seed money to get started is an appropriate time to self-fund, even for candidates that don’t have much disposable income.

Getting off to the right start is important.  A delayed start against a better-known candidate could impact your chances of winning, and you don’t want that to happen.

At the same time, as you enter the last week of your campaign, there’s a good chance there will be a mailer or a commercial that needs to be done to close out the race.

If you’re honestly in the thick of it and not winning or losing by a huge margin, probably because you did a poll that informed you of this, then you might want to think about throwing in the finishing funds.

If you don’t and you lose by a close margin, you’ll kick yourself for quite some time for not getting the job done when you had the chance.