What Does It Cost To Run For City Council (And Win)?

What is the cost of winning a city council campaign? City council campaign costs vary based on the size of the city. But getting the basics for a small to medium sized city will cost $8,000 - $12,000. 

Our budget calculator can help you tailor that estimate to your specific campaign.

Primary Campaign Costs

The great thing about budgeting for a political campaign is the simpler you keep it, the better. Adding to the basic cost of a city council campaign likely hurts your chances of winning more than it helps (we’ll explain why later). 

What should you spend your money on? 
 

 Breakdown of City Council Campaign Costs

Breakdown of City Council Campaign Costs

This example budget totals $10,652 for a district with 20,000 registered voters. 

Office supplies and laptops should be provided by the candidate, not purchased with campaign funds. A campaign manager should be volunteer unless you’re spending $50,000 or more on the campaign.

Why Is Each Cost Important?

Website

Your campaign website should be more than just a couple of pages explaining why you’re running. 

It should also house your voter database and accept donations. The cost of websites that have a back-end voter database has dropped so dramatically over the past few years that even smaller campaigns should use one. 

And every campaign website should accept donations. I’m partial to NationBuilder because it offers sharp looking templates that don’t require web design knowledge and an easy-to-use voter database. The $59/mo option will suffice for most council candidates (for up to 15,000 voters, and a free voter file).

Photography

Most candidates overlook photography, but its an important item to spend money on. You’ll need high quality candidate photos for your website, for the doorbell piece and for the mail and digital ads. 

Professional photos make your candidacy look serious.

Doorbell Materials: Design, Printing & Postage

Running for city council means lots of door to door campaigning. It’s important to leave campaign material behind so voters will remember you. It’s easy to cram too much information into your doorbell piece. 

It should be designed by a professional who understands how to convey your message to voters.

And then you’ll need to pay for printing. 

I also highly recommend design & printing for small, 4x6 or 5x7 postcards that can be mailed to voters you met. Reinforcing and personalizing your message will make the doorbelling efforts infinitely more effective.

The cost of design & print for these is relatively inexpensive, but the cost of the stamps to mail them adds up quick.

Paid Media: Design, Printing, Postage & Digital Ads

Paid media is where most of your campaign expenses should go. Ideally, voter contact (paid media, doorbelling) account for 70% or more of your campaign expenses. There’s also no limit to what you should spend. 

Successful candidates set a minimal amount for mailers or digital ads needed to be sure every targeted voter sees the campaign message. But any additional campaigns funds beyond the target should go to more ads.

The more voters hear your message, the more likely you are to win (as long as you have the right message).

Miscellaneous

There are a few necessary, miscellaneous expenses that will come up through the campaign.

Many cities require a filing fee to be on the ballot (generally 1% of the council position salary). There may be major community events you need to be at (parades, summer festivals). There are generally entry fees for candidates. 

You may also want to get lawn signs. Signs are often considered a necessity. They’re not, and every dollar you spend on them takes away from voter contact efforts. 

But if it can’t be avoided, getting 50-100 signs for strong supporters won’t break the bank.

What NOT To Buy

It’s almost as important to know what NOT to buy as it is to know what’s necessary to buy.

As soon as you announce your candidacy, and again when you officially file, you’ll begin to get solicitations from political vendors that want you to buy trinkets from them. Many of them have great stats and stories about the reach their trinkets will get. 

Be cautious. Most of them are a waste of money. 

I like candidates to ask themselves this question when they’re considering expenses that aren’t part of the campaign plan: if I spent this $20 on voter contact, how many voters would hear my message? 

Mail pieces cost about $0.50/voter, and digital ads are about $0.05/voter. 

What don’t you need?

Buttons, balloons and magnets. Campaign pens. Campaign Coasters. You don't need anything listed here

You’ll also be hit up for advertising with Yellow Pages and local newspapers. Again, be cautious. With direct mail and digital ads you can target individual voters. There’s no need to pay for a newspaper that ambiguously targets a group of people that vote at high rates. 

When Do You Need The Money?

Candidates are taken seriously when they demonstrate they can win. And the best way to show you can win is to raise money.

You’ll also have early campaign expenses. So starting your campaign with a big fundraising push is essential. You’ll need about 30% of the total campaign dollars in the first month for up front costs.

The good news is the easiest time to raise money is when you kick off your campaign. That’s when you raise money from friends and family. Later, when you’ve proven your willingness and ability to raise money, you’ll be able to raise money from regular party donors.
 

How To Raise The Money

This is the simplest and most difficult part of the campaign for most candidates. The best way to raise money is to sit down and write out a list of everyone who might contribute money: friends, co-workers, family, colleagues, etc. 

These are your personal contacts. Not the party contacts or lobbyists. Those donors contribute money after you’ve proven your willingness to raise money.

Once your list is complete, get on the phone and start calling. It’ll take a few tries to get comfortable, but once you do “dialing for dollars” isn’t nearly as bad as you imagine.

A warning: there are many ways to convince yourself you can avoid dialing for dollars. You can make a pitch on facebook. You can send emails. You can host a fundraiser. You can send out a mailing.

All these efforts are more expensive or less effective than dialing for dollars. Or both. If you are willing to put in the effort to call friends and family for campaign contributions, you’ll dramatically increase your odds of winning. If you aren’t willing, you’ll dramatically decrease your odds of winning.

Campaign Cost Calculator

Check out our budget calculator linked below to get an estimate of your campaign costs. This is just an estimate, but should provide you of a ballpark idea based on when your election is and the size of your district.

 Our Campaign Budget Calculator Will Help Estimate Your City Council Budget

Our Campaign Budget Calculator Will Help Estimate Your City Council Budget

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