The 2016 presidential race marches on, with candidates of both parties making promises about economic reform. Some want to spend a lot more government dough, while others want to cut the budget by trillions of dollars. But what about the financial decisions they make for their campaigns? Some have managed to perform well in polls, based on the most recent nationwide averages reported by RealClearPolitics, while raising and spending less than the competition. Others weren't shy about burning through funds right out of the gate, with varying results. Here's a look at how frugal the candidates were as the race began to heat up this fall, and what their campaign promises suggest about how they might handle the federal budget. They're ranked by their "burn rate" -- the amount they spent divided by the amount they raised -- through the third quarter of 2015, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings cited in The New York Times (not including funds from super PACs and other outside groups).
Who Is the Most Frugal Presidential Candidate?
Of all the candidates for the presidential nomination, the little-known Republican Jim Gilmore accumulated the smallest war chest: only $100,000, all of which his campaign spent. Gilmore's economic plan, which he refers to as the Growth Code, has been criticized from the left and questioned by analysts on the right, who wonder about the absence of the earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and accounting for employer-provided health care benefits. Gilmore is polling last among the GOP field, at less than 1 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.
The leading candidate in the Republican polls (at 34.6 percent) reported raising just $5.8 million, putting him ninth in fundraising overall and seventh among the GOP candidates. Meanwhile, he spent $5.6 million, for a deceptively high burn rate of about 97 percent, second only to the longshot Gilmore. Officially, the Trump campaign had only $200,000 in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter, but with a personal net worth estimated at $4.5 billion, what does The Donald care? When it comes to government spending, Trump has said he plans to tighten the federal purse strings by 20 percent, although it's not clear how exactly he'd accomplish that.
Rick Santorum's campaign raised $1 million -- not all that much compared with the tens of millions raised by several other Republican candidates. That may explain why he spent nearly 80 percent of it by the end of the third quarter. Santorum's economic plan for the country doesn't seem any more oriented toward sustainable frugality than his campaign spending. He's proposed a flat 20 percent tax rate across income brackets for individuals and corporations, cutting taxes by $3.2 trillion over 10 years. The downside, according to the conservative Tax Foundation, is that Santorum's plan could cause a deficit of $1.1 trillion over the same decade.
Mike Huckabee's campaign for the Republican nomination reported a total of $3.2 million raised and $2.5 million spent, tying Rand Paul's campaign at 78 percent. In terms of the federal budget, the former governor of Arkansas has argued strongly in favor of a "Fair Tax" based on consumption, as well as such steps as getting rid of the Internal Revenue Service completely. While Huckabee claims that this would amount to 6 percent economic growth, not even fellow conservatives seem to be going along, and in polling he's stuck at 2.2 percent.
Paul's reported funds totaled $9.4 million, $7.3 million of which his campaign spent (tying Huckabee at 78 percent). The libertarian senator from Kentucky has stated that, as president, he would cut $2 trillion in taxes in a complete overhaul of the code. The Tax Foundation optimistically estimates that Paul's flat-tax plans would cost $1.8 trillion over 10 years but raise $737 billion when accounting for the economic growth it would spur, while Citizens for Tax Justice pessimistically estimates a net cost of $15 trillion. Paul is tied at No. 8 in the polls among Republicans, at 2.2 percent.
From the get-go, Martin O'Malley's campaign for the Democratic nomination has trailed far behind those of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in polling and fundraising, with $3.3 million raised through the third quarter. Playing catch-up, the campaign burned through $2.5 million, which comes to a full 76 percent of the war chest. In terms of the federal economy, O'Malley has advocated an expansion of Social Security, universal pre-K, and debt-free college educations -- policies sure to cost many billions.
Chris Christie's campaign raised $4.2 million and spent $2.8 million -- 67 percent. The Republican candidate had only $1.4 million in cash on hand at the end of the third quarter. During November's Republican debate hosted by Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal, Christie said his plans for the country would save more than $1 trillion over 10 years. The New Jersey governor is polling at 3.6 percent nationwide, though.
Ben Carson's campaign amassed $31.4 million, making him the top fundraiser among the Republican candidates and third overall behind Clinton and Sanders. His campaign spent $20.1 million -- 64 percent of the available funds -- to get him polling near the top of the Republican field. On the campaign trail, Carson has said that as president he would impose a tithe-based tax plan, amounting to 10 percent of an individual's income -- although during the Oct. 28 debate he acknowledged that the actual tax rate would likely be close to 15 percent. Some say it would result in a $1.1 trillion federal deficit, a contention Politifact corroborated.
Include PAC money, and Jeb Bush out-fundraised every other candidate from both sides of the aisle, with a total of $133.3 million through the third quarter. But he controlled only the $24.8 million his campaign raised directly (placing him fifth overall and third within the GOP field). He spent $14.5 million, a rate of 58 percent. Like other Republicans, Bush has promised to dramatically lower federal spending if elected president and create sustained economic growth, but his tax reform plans have drawn criticism with estimates that they would cost between $1.6 trillion and $3.7 trillion over a decade. Neither his spending nor his plan has brought him great success: He's polling fifth in the GOP race, at 4.8 percent.
Clinton raised the most money in the race by far through the end of September -- $77.5 million. But in fending off the tenacious Sanders, her campaign spent $44.5 million, or 57 percent. Clinton has pledged to do away with government institutions she feels are overspending while implementing reforms designed to level the economic playing field, such as a higher federal minimum wage and $350 billion in funding for public college education, as well as reinvestment in infrastructure. She would increase taxes on the wealthy to help pay for these initiatives, and says immigration reform would grow the U.S. workforce and the economy along wth it. She leads Sanders for the Democratic nomination, polling at 51.2 percent nationwide.
Marco Rubio's campaign amassed $14.6 million and spent $7.7 million, or 53 percent. As part of his platform, the Republican senator has stated he would slash government spending by trillions, in part by eliminating federal programs such as Obamacare. His political foes, meanwhile, are making a big deal of Rubio's messy personal finances over the years, and the candidate has acknowledged a "lack of bookkeeping skills." He sits at 11.2 percent in the polls, putting him in third place among the Republican hopefuls.
Filings show that Ted Cruz's campaign raised $26.6 million, second-highest among the GOP candidates and fourth overall, and spent $12.8 million, or about 48 percent. He's now duking it out with Trump for front-runner status in the GOP field at 18.8 percent in the polls. Cruz has made a lofty promise to save the federal government more than $500 billion over 10 years, which he says he would accomplish in part by abolishing the IRS.
John Kasich's campaign has reported $4.4 million in funds raised and $1.7 million spent, a burn rate of 39 percent. The Republican governor of Ohio has said he would balance the national budget within eight years by cutting taxes, reforming the IRS, cutting social programs, and promoting job creation. His plans for the federal economy focus on balance rather than growth, which might make him unique among the GOP candidates. Kasich is polling seventh among the Republican field, at 2.8 percent.
As a socialist Democrat, Sanders is an interesting case study in frugality. He hasn't raised anywhere near the campaign funds of Clinton, the leading candidate, but has managed to perform very well in the polls anyway, coming in second at 38 percent. Sanders' campaign raised $41.5 million through the third quarter of 2015, making him the second-best fundraiser overall, and spent only $14.3 million. At 34 percent, his burn rate is significantly lower than Clinton's. Sanders plans to spend quite a chunk of government change if he becomes president, though. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Sanders' plans for reform in areas such as education and health care reform would cost a whopping $18 trillion.
As a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Carly Fiorina lays claim to some serious financial know-how -- and the title of most frugal presidential candidate. On the federal level, Fiorina has said she would require every government agency to start with a budget of zero and thoroughly justify any spending. Her campaign reported $8.5 million in funds raised and $2.9 million spent -- only 34 percent -- leaving her with lots of cash on hand. Fiorina's debate skills did a lot of the advertising for her in the third quarter: She performed well enough in the so-called JV debate to move into prime time, at least temporarily. She's now slipped to 2 percent in the polls, making her the 10th-ranked Republican in the race.