Where do candidates get the money to pay for their campaigns?

All candidates for federal office—president, Senate, and House of Representatives—raise money by soliciting contributions from private citizens. The exception is the public funding program for presidential elections that Congress created in 1974. Beginning in 1976, presidential candidates could draw on a U.S. government fund to pay campaign costs. This program is still available, but in 2012 President Obama and former governor Mitt Romney chose to raise private money instead of using public funds.

Individual contributions made up the great majority of the money President Obama and Governor Romney raised in 2012; PAC contributions made up only a small share of total receipts. Because Obama and Romney depended entirely on private contributions, they had to spend at least as much time asking for money as they did asking for votes.7

Congressional candidates also get most of their money from individual contributions, but they get a bigger share of their campaign funds from PACs. Senate candidates may get around 15 percent of their money from PACs and House candidates more than one-third. The great majority of individual contributions they get come from people who live in the same state or congressional district as the candidate they support.8

Any citizen can make a campaign contribution, but very few do. In 2012, only 0.4 percent of Americans made contributions large enough—more than $200—to be reported under the FECA; and they accounted for more than 60 percent of all individual contributions. Even fewer citizens made contributions in the 2014 midterm congressional elections. The public pays much less attention to these elections than to those held in presidential election years. Voter turnout drops—from 58 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2014—and so does donor turnout. Only 0.23 percent of Americans made contributions of $200 or more in 2014, and they accounted for two-thirds of all individual contributions. Campaign contributions are also closely correlated with family income: the higher a person's income, the more likely he or she is to make a contribution, and to make a large contribution.9

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