In a previous post, we got a bird’s eye view of the 2020 Democratic campaign spending and fundraising. But what about the operations spending for each candidate? How is each Democratic candidate spending their money on this race? Well, look no further! I’ve analyzed the line-by-line campaign operations expenses of the following 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and visualized them below.

The selected candidates

The New York Times currently identifies these candidates as leading in the national polling average.

  • Joe Biden
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Michael Bloomberg
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Amy Klobuchar

While other candidates might displace these frontrunners later, it seems likely that this is the most viable pool, so I’m focusing only on them.

Preparing the data

The FEC does not assign broad, uniform spending buckets. Not using categories would be chaotic. Using schedule and ledger strings would be useful, but the FEC files lack that kind of clarity. I wanted the spending categories to be intuitive, so I employed some straightforward pattern matching logic in Postgres in each record’s purpose field to create broad spending bins.

Visualizing the data

Here is a straightforward bar chart of the operations spending of each candidate binned by broad spending type.

There is no data available from the FEC about Michael Bloomberg’s operations spending at this time.

Democratic Presidential Candidate 2020 Operations Spending
Democratic Presidential Candidate 2020 Operations Spending
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
oe Biden's 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures
Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures. Expenses for each category are represented as a percentage of the candidate’s overall operating expenditures.
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Pete Buttigieg's 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures
Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures. Expenses for each category are represented as a percentage of the candidate’s overall operating expenditures.
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Amy Klobuchar's 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures
Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures. Expenses for each category are represented as a percentage of the candidate’s overall operating expenditures.
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures
Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures. Expenses for each category are represented as a percentage of the candidate’s overall operating expenditures.
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Elizabeth Warren's 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures
Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign operating expenditures. Expenses for each category are represented as a percentage of the candidate’s overall operating expenditures.
License2020 Xyzology | CC-BY-SA | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Highlights and Takeaways

Staff expenses are significant cost-sinks. Combined, candidates spent 32% of their total revenue on campaign salaries, payroll, benefits, and other associated costs. That figure doesn’t include payroll taxes (which are significant). I’ve bundled that figure with the Legal, Taxes, and Fees category.

Media and Marketing expenses eat nearly a third of the budget. Combined, the Democratic presidential candidates spent 29% of their total funds on costs related to media and marketing. That’s not surprising since it seems intuitive that the more advertising and marketing you have, the better your chance of controlling the narrative and elevating your campaign. The jury is still out on that. Scholars such as Diana Mutz, who study this impact, observe that advertising does little to sway voters. Some also speculate that, in this milieu of status threats and tribalism, there may not be anyone left to persuade.

Rallies make headlines but aren’t breaking the bank. As a group, candidates only spent 4% of their total funds on expenses related to Events and Production. It’s worth noting that the Credit Card Payments category might include some of those expenses. However, without further granularity from the FEC, it’s not possible to tell.

Amy Klobuchar takes the cake for most money poured into Miscellaneous Consulting. She has spent $2.57M on expenses related to Miscellaneous Consulting. That’s 300% the average spending of her competitors in this domain. Furthermore, it’s a whopping 80% of the combined total spending of all her competitors. Then again, her sudden rise in New Hampshire might suggest that whatever advice she’s paying for is good advice.

Amy Klobuchar’s spending on Misc. Consulting is 300% the average spending of her competitors.

Getting a copy of my source data

Data transparency is one of the central tenets of “good data.” In order to serve datasets efficiently, I’m working on building a repository that aligns with Google Dataset structural requirements (which are informed by Schema.org).

Watch this space for more details! In the meantime, you can always get in touch with me if you need a copy of any custom datasets (e.g. how I binned the spending).

The main FEC datasets can be found at the FEC bulk data repository. Be warned, some of the files are quite large (even compressed) and you’ll need a large environment available to work with them.