What Happens to Failed Presidential Candidates' Unspent Campaign Money?

Presidential candidates in the United States raise millions of dollars to fund their campaigns. What happens to leftover money once the campaign ends? JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images
Presidential candidates in the United States raise millions of dollars to fund their campaigns. What happens to leftover money once the campaign ends? JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush finished a disappointing fourth in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary last month, winning just 7.8 percent of the vote. That same evening, Bush announced that he was dropping out of the race, ending a quest to win the office that his father and brother previously had held. Bush wasn't the first GOP candidate to bomb out in 2016 — 13 others had quit before him — but his failure was even more ignominious because of the gigantic amount of money that contributors had shelled out in hopes of putting him in the Oval Office.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org website, as of January 31, Bush's campaign organization and outside groups that supported his candidacy had raised about $152 million. To grasp the enormity of that sum, consider that it's a full 50 percent more than the $101 million amassed so far by the second best-funded GOP hopeful, Texas senator Ted Cruz, and five times the funding that front-runner Donald J. Trump has reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).


What to Do With the Leftovers?

While political commentators continue to ponder how such a well-funded candidacy could fall short, another intriguing question arises. How much money is left in Bush's war chest, and what will happen to it?

It's likely that Bush's campaign organization spent most, if not all, of the $33.5 million in "hard money" from donors, who are limited by federal law to contributing $2,700 per person during the primaries. But there's also the Right to Rise super PAC and a handful of other independent groups, which the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, empowered to raise unlimited amounts from benefactors as long as they didn't directly coordinate their efforts with candidates. According to OpenSecrets.org, the disclosures filed two days after Bush dropped out show that those groups still have about $24.5 million in their coffers.

So far, Right to Rise, which controls most of that money, hasn't responded to media inquiries about what it intends to do with the unspent cash.

But according to FEC rules, both candidates' official campaigns and independent groups have relatively few restrictions on what they can do with unspent money. Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, says the most clear-cut rule is that candidates can't spend any campaign funds on personal expenses: "Clothes, vacations, buying stuff for their families, and so on," she says.

Otherwise, Novak says, "they're allowed to do a lot of other things with the money. They can give it to another campaign, or to the party. Or they can give to a super PAC. They also can give it to a charity, as long as it doesn't benefit them in some way."

What about the independent groups? "They can use it for anything they want," Novak says. "They could turn around and support a different candidate if they chose."

Does It Get Returned?

Often, though, such groups end up returning unspent money to donors.  When former Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential nominee race in 2015 (his second withdrawal), months before the primaries even started, the super PAC set up to assist him refunded $13 million in unspent funds to backers, according to National Public Radio.

And after former House speaker Newt Gingrich quit the GOP primaries in 2012, his super PAC returned $5 million to Miriam Adelson, the wife of billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson. (As this Wall Street Journal article notes, most of the groups are run by career political operatives who want to maintain their long-term relationships with wealthy donors, so the givebacks work in their interest.)

All of these possibilities, of course, are contingent upon an unsuccessful candidate and/or an independent super PAC actually having money left in the till, which seems to be a rarity. After Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ended his nominee bid in September 2015, for example, his campaign was left with nearly $1 million in debt. And the outside groups that backed Maryland's Martin O'Malley in his failed bid for this year's Democratic presidential nomination ended up in the hole by nearly $194,000, according to OpenSecrets.org.