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What Happens to Your Campaign Contributions When a Presidential Candidate Drops Out?

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Joe Skipper (Getty Images)

On Wednesday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee officially dropped out of the presidential race, just days after John Hickenlooper also called it quits (and announced his Senate bid). As of June, both former candidates raised nearly $8.5 million in campaign contributions from individual donors and PACs.

Before September’s third round of debates in Houston, we’ll likely see at least a handful of other candidates also drop out, representing millions in campaign donations. But what exactly happens with your campaign contributions when a presidential candidate drops out of the race? Can they use your funds on fancy trips or private jets? According to rules set forth by the Federal Election Committee, any excess campaign funds are not allowed for personal use, but it’s entirely possible, and the world of campaign finance is needlessly complicated.

Excess funds can be used to cover expenses or spent on other candidates

Let’s say you’ve donated $25 to a candidate. If a campaign has any outstanding debt or expenses, part of your donation might be used to pay these off. This could mean paying salaries for campaign staff or even moving expenses.

If you’re supporting a campaign that hasn’t accrued any debt, it’s likely part of your $25 might be used for that candidate’s future campaigns—Hickenlooper, no doubt, will likely allocate any excess funds toward his Senate campaign.

Then there’s the grey area: Candidates also have the ability to use your donation to purchase “gifts,” so long as they are not given to the candidate’s family; what constitutes a “gift,” however, seems pretty open-ended.

As for less likely alternatives, a candidate might put your $25 toward a political action committee they support or just another candidate in a race (though they’d probably prefer to keep it). Your contribution could also be donated to charities at your candidate’s choosing.

In the end, the FEC’s rules are vague and candidates adhere to them in whatever way they see fit. All of this brings us to a big, glaring question—how can you be sure your donation has been used appropriately?

Photo: Karen Ducey (Getty Images)

How to make sure your contributions are spent wisely (sort of)

While you can never be 100% sure how your individual donation is spent, you can research a campaign’s spending throughout and after a presidential bid is over. “Once a campaign has ended, a candidate’s committee must continue to file FEC reports until the committee is terminated,” a spokesperson for the FEC said on email. “So it’s possible to track how the campaigns spend any residual funds they maintain.”

To view these reports, visit the FEC database, search by a candidate’s campaign name—which typically consists of their last name, followed by “For America” or “2020″—and scroll to the bottom of the page to find their expenses. To find Inslee’s campaign, search for “Inslee for America.” To find Hickenlooper’s campaign, search for “Hickenlooper 2020.” You can search for any former presidential candidate’s campaign from any other election, as well.

There are limits to these filings. For one, they’re generally updated quarterly; if you donated to Inslee or Hickenlooper, you won’t know how they’re spending excess funds until September. Also, you’ll have to do a lot of digging into candidates’ expenses, and even then, you can’t fully interpret a simple line item.

Still, none of this should dissuade you from donating to a candidate of your choosing. In fact, it should provide incentive to vote for a candidate who promotes campaign finance reform, so that your future contributions are spent wisely.

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