The Trump question: How do self-financed candidates fare in elections?

A pile of hundred dollar bills
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve been saying that this election will be BYOB — “bring your own billionaire” — but for Donald Trump, it’s more like “BE your own billionaire.”

Trump has pledged to self-finance, and so far he has loaned $1.8 million of his own money to his campaign. He’s received just $100,000 in contributions from other donors.

In an election that’s expected to top $10 billion, it will be interesting to watch if Trump really does deliver on funding his own campaign. By self-financing, he’d avoid many of the rules other candidates have to follow. For instance, while other candidates are subject to campaign finance laws restricting their coordination with super PACs, the Trump campaign can be its own super PAC — meaning Trump can continue to run his campaign the way he wants without any needing outside input.

But being able to fund your own campaign hasn’t really helped presidential candidates in the past. We flipped through old campaign finance reports to find some of the largest self-financing presidential spenders:

  • In 1992, businessman Ross Perot spent a whopping $64 million (about $107 million in 2015 dollars) of his own money running as an Independent. The following election, Perot again campaigned for the White House; that cycle, however, he only chipped in $8.2 million (about $12.4 million in 2015 dollars).
  • Mitt Romney spent $44.7 million on his failed primary run in the 2008. Seemingly learning from that lesson, he only gave around $52,000 to his campaign in 2012.
  • Steve Forbes spent $37.4 million (about $56 million in 2015 dollars) on his failed 1996 presidential bid. The very next election, he personally poured in $38.7 million (about $53 million in 2015 dollars) — with the same result.
  • In 2008, Hillary Clinton gave her campaign $13.2 million of her own money before losing to Barack Obama.
  • One of Romney’s opponents in the 2012 GOP primary, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, notably proclaimed that he would not self-fund his bid for the presidency. But he quickly changed his tune, pouring in $5.4 million of his own money into the ultimately unsuccessful attempt.
  • Rudy Giuliani contributed $1.1 million to his 2008 presidential run.
  • Already in the 2016 cycle, Jeb Bush has given his own campaign $388,000. Bush actually deposited this money before he was a declared candidate, using the funds for “testing the waters activities.”
  • Herman Cain spent $275,000 from his own bank account in the 2012 primary.

What do all of these people have in common? None of them have taken up residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (barring Bush’s result in this year’s contest). On the other hand, the Donald’s net worth is likely much larger than previous candidates. We’ll have to wait and see if Election 2016 turns out any differently.