The political battle between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is projected to be the costliest presidential election in U.S. history. Add in several high-profile Congressional races and a host of high-ranking state seats and the estimated spending for this 2020 election cycle is nearly $2.2 billion.
Political candidates are leaning heavily on your money to win their seats. But what’s the best way to donate to your candidate of choice? Does your donation actually make a difference in their campaign? And how are they spending all that money?
“For this particular presidential race, I think a lot of money is going to be spent on getting out the vote,” said Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington D.C. “Getting their people motivated to get to the polls is probably the most significant activity that the campaigns will be doing.”
Their financial focus is largely on the so-called swing states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida where every vote counts toward what could be a slim victory.
They are trying to turn campaign donations into votes largely through media advertising and, in the COVID-19 era, fewer public appearances than are typical for a presidential election year.
Trump, as an incumbent president, is also required to use campaign money to reimburse taxpayers for use of Air Force One or security details that he uses while on the campaign trail.
“All of the presidential candidates, the incumbent presidents have to do that,” Bryner said, including Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “That’s a pretty significant expense.”
How Much You Can Donate to Your Favorite Candidate
Smaller, individual donations are highly coveted by candidates in all races, Bryner, said, because they allow the campaigns to boast that they are working for and supported by the people. In the Congressional arena, she added, Democratic incumbents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida have leaned particularly hard on their prowess for collecting individual donations.
About 55 percent of Trump campaign money has come from small individual donations of less than $200, compared to 42 percent for Biden.
But there are rules and regulations for how much one person can donate. The Federal Election Commission sets limits on individual political donations that are adjusted each year for inflation.
“Campaign donation limits are in place to prevent corruption, [such as] a donor giving a million dollars to a candidate and the candidate being so beholden to them as to grant favors once in office,” Bryner explained.
This year’s contribution limits for individuals include $2,800 to a candidate’s committee or a combined $10,000 for state, district or local party committees. The FEC also maintains a database of people who donate more than $200 per individual campaign or PAC, including their name, location, employer, how much they have donated and who has received their donations.
So while you may throw all your support behind a particular candidate, you need to keep tabs on your political spending. Penalties for willfully ignoring federal campaign finance limits can include hefty fines and even jail time.
Where You Can Donate to Your Favorite Candidate
If you want to donate directly to your candidate of choice, your best and safest bet is to go directly to their website.
You may choose to donate to a House or Senate race or a smaller race closer to home. Every candidate, no matter how big or how small their campaign, should have an official site where you can donate. You could also donate to a race outside of your district, which you may want to do for high-profile or high-stakes races.
Knowing who the players are and how they are polling can help you figure out how your money could make a difference.
“A candidate might be in a district that’s pretty safe for the incumbent and be so far behind in the fundraising game that it’s really unlikely they’re going to win. On the one hand you want to support that person because you believe in them, but then, on the other hand, you could allocate that money to someone in a closer contest,” Bryner saud. “Generally, a closer contest, your dollar is going to go a little bit farther.”
How to Donate to a Cause or a Committee
If you’d rather donate to a cause, instead of than a candidate, you could donate to a politician action committee or a PAC. A PAC is an organization that uses money to influence or lobby for legislation that benefits that particular group.
If you are passionate about environmental causes, you may choose to donate to Sierra Club Political Committee or the League of Conservation Voters, which advocate on behalf of candidates and legislation that are pro-environment.
There are thousands of possible options for cause-related PACs, from public education to medical advocacy to gun rights or gun control to religious or atheist communities to organizations based on race and ethnicity.
You can also donate to PACs that are related to your occupation.
“If you work for a business or if you are in a profession, like you are a dentist, your profession or your business likely has a PAC affiliated with it that you might be able to donate to,” said Bryner, noting that realtors have one of the biggest PACs in the country. “These are oftentimes non-partisan or are bi partisan.”
You can also donate directly to your political party. The Democrat National Committee and the Republican National Committee, as well as third-party organizations such as the Libertarian National Committee and the Green Party, all accept donations and will send your money to the candidates they feel need the most help to win a race or a particular swing state.
That could mean high profile Senate or Congressional races, swing states in the presidential election or even gubernatorial elections.
Make Sure Your Donation Dollars are Safe
When donating, whether to a candidate or a PAC, or a local or nationwide race, make sure you are donating to the actual campaign and not a fraudulent site.
Always use a credit card and never send cash, Bryner cautioned. Also be wary of making political donations via social media as they can be harder to verify and may look strikingly similar to a candidate’s actual donation ads.
“I wouldn’t go through a social media platform because there’s a lot of manipulative Facebook sites that…are really random dudes in Wisconsin,” Bryner said. “So just be careful with that.”
And while authentic donation sites may ask for your name, your location and your political party affiliation, they will not ask for your social security number or personal financial information.
Your Political Donation is Not a Tax Write Off
While you can deduct a certain amount of non-profit or charity donations on your taxes, donations to political candidates or PACs do not count as approved write offs.1
An IRS-approved deduction is a donation made to a charitable or non-profit organization with a 501(c)(3) designation. Political committees are designated as 501(c)(4) organizations and are not tax deductible for individuals.
Make Sure You Are Registered to Vote!
While candidates rely on campaign contributions to win their election, there’s something they want more than your money — your vote.