The election is over. What happens to all that campaign cash?

An estimated 5.8 billion was spent on the 2012 election. Where can candidates spend their leftover money? What is off limits?

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
President Barack Obama, with his daughter Malia, waves toward the crowd at his election night party last week in Chicago. Now the 2012 campaign season is over, candidates can put extra money aside for future campaigns.

The election is over. For now, no more attack ads, no more barrage of emails begging for money.

But speaking of cash, what about the money raked in by campaigns that was left unspent?

It’s a little too early to call the grand total of all 2012 election spending, but the Center for Responsive Politics estimates it will be above $5.8 billion, 7 percent higher than 2008. “But outside spending,” the group says, “is a wild card that makes predictions tricky.”

Outside spending includes money from corporations, unions, individuals, and other political groups. Investigative journalism site ProPublica’s PAC Track is trying to do the math, and right now says prominent political action committees spent a total of $581 million. That includes “Super PACs,” which because of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, opened the door for unlimited fundraising and spending.

As for the campaigns, The New York Times breaks it down pretty well, although they pair up the campaigns and their political parties’ spending with their biggest Super PAC supporters. (Super PACs can’t legally coordinate with the campaigns – you won’t hear Obama or Romney say “I approve this message” at the end, but the money is still supporting them.) That means there’s some overlap with the ProPublica numbers, but it gives us a ballpark idea: all told, somewhere above $2 billion between the two major parties. In 2008, Politico said it was unprecedented for that number to be more than $1 billion.

The NYT tallies include data through mid-October and may not match what’s finally reported to the Federal Election Commission, but here’s what we know so far…

  Obama Romney
Raised $934.0m $881.8m
Spent $852.9m $752.3m
Remainder $134.7m $193.3m

So what happens to that monster chunk of change remaining? We asked the Federal Election Commission, an independent agency that regulates campaign finance.

How leftover money can be spent

Here’s what an FEC spokesperson told us:

"Surplus funds may be used in connection with a future election. Funds may be transferred between authorized committees of the same candidate (for example, from a previous campaign committee to a current campaign committee) without limit as long as the committee making the transfer has no “net debts outstanding.” CFR 110.3(c) and 116.2(c)(2). Alternatively, a candidate may redesignate a former campaign committee as the principal campaign committee of his or her current campaign and use the excess funds of the previous campaign in the current campaign.

Pages 51-57 of the FEC’s Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees (http://www.fec.gov/pdf/candgui.pdf) discuss the permissible, personal and prohibited uses of campaign funds. Pages 117-121 discuss winding down activity."

This explains a few things. One, debts have to be paid first – and there isn’t always a surplus of funds to cover them. Hillary Clinton is still paying off her $25 million 2008 presidential campaign debt. (But she’s down to just $73,000 as of mid-October.) According to Politico, so are Rudy Giuliani and many 2012 Republican contenders: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. (Ron Paul, however, has a $2 million surplus.) Want to look up other candidates’ financial situations? Go crazy at the FEC disclosure page.

Second, the FEC’s statement tells us money can be used for future campaigns. President Obama can’t win a third term – but could he help Hillary Clinton pay off her campaign debt?

Chapter 8 of the FEC campaign guide, Expenditures and Other Uses of Campaign Funds, says money can be donated to charities and state and local candidates. It also allows “unlimited transfers to any national, state or local party committee.” But for national candidates, there’s a limit of $2,000. So that’s out.

Could those funds be passed on to Obama’s VP, Joe Biden? (On Election Day, he joked he might run for president again.) This is possible, but not directly – the money would have to go to the Democratic National Committee, which could spend it to support Biden.

The FEC guide also tells us the money could be refunded to donors, spent on gifts (or “donations of nominal value”) to non-family members, moving expenses after leaving office, home security for officeholders, and work-related “travel expenses for a federal officeholder and his or her accompanying spouse and children,” although a 2007 law puts some restrictions on that. (Interestingly, campaign cash can also be used prior to the election to pay candidates a salary – but not to incumbents, and it’s capped at the lesser of what they made last year or what the office they’re seeking pays.)

Forbidden uses of campaign cash

The big no-no, of course, is personal use of political contributions. Campaign cash can’t be spent on expenses that would exist even if the (former) candidate hadn’t run for office. That’s a broad definition, but the guide spells out some specific examples including college tuition, groceries, funeral expenses, clothes (excluding stuff like campaign T-shirts), mortgage or rent payments, leisure and entertainment, and gym and country club dues.

Just a couple of decades ago, former candidates could spend money on this stuff. Factcheck.org says, “Retiring federal lawmakers used to be able to pocket extra cash and use it for cars, vacations, clothes, pet grooming, whatever – but that changed in 1989 with the passage of the Ethics Reform Act.”

Brandon Ballenger is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.

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