“Politicians are always thrilled when someone writes them a check. In truth, and unfortunately for the system, most of them end up spending the money on their offices, security and travel.” ― Jonathan Martin, The New York Times, March 23, 2008
With a shrug, former presidential candidate John McCain says, on American Public Media, he and his family left the homes, cars and merchandise they received during their 2008 presidential run.
McCain, who is planning a run for the Senate from Arizona in 2020, was speaking in the roundabout, plausible manner that comes in handy when you lose by a 534-vote margin and find yourself deeply in debt. The solution here, he explained to New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin, “was to not spend it.”
Politicians often claim they appreciate the support they receive from their constituents. I’m sure your constituents feel the same way. However, the majority of those gestures aren’t much more than acknowledgments that the presidential candidate you supported won. However, the off-the-cuff remarks are usually managed and polished. As time passes, the candidate always says he or she will “listen to the people” and “consider” the support of people who sent thousands, even millions, of dollars and even busloads of petitions. The favorite motivational speeches of politicians who lost serve to mollify their political base and distract from their catastrophic defeat. And the king of corny political bromides, please: “When we start winning we will … get the [money] back.”
Except, in fact, the money really doesn’t come back. “To be clear, the only fundraisers paid for with the campaign committee money are ticketed events, such as fundraisers for the campaign,” Chris Cruz, a spokesman for Texas Senator Ted Cruz, told The Washington Post recently. The cost of Internet advertising campaigns is also paid by campaign funds. As for shopping – that’s covered by an internal campaign account for expenses incurred by campaign staffers.
A 2011 GAO report found that, even after a presidential campaign is over, many campaign staffers are available for other political activity. The amount of money received from campaign donors that are spent on these “travel and lodging expenses” is significant. “During his 2008 campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain and his family received almost $200,000 in campaign contributions,” states the report. “Of that, approximately $131,000 was paid for on-the-job travel by a campaign staffer whose job was to travel with the candidate.” That salary ballooned to more than $250,000 after the campaign ended.
“If you want to know what happens after a campaign is over, look at the [fundraisers],” said Michelle Noonan, a conservative writer and editor. “Most of it goes to overhead” — and administrative costs.
Campaigns also seem to be realizing that there are downsides to the advertising of “we’re going to get this guy back.” Once their campaign is over, the contributions used to support the campaign end up on a credit card. The risk is that the credit card company will end up calling the debt.
Despite the federal law prohibiting spending campaign funds for “personal expenses,” the law is vague, and there’s nothing to stop current candidates and current donors from continuing this pattern.
A very practical piece of advice to former campaigns if you happen to be thinking of trying it yourself: “Hey, it worked for John McCain. He won. No thanks.”