Personal Campaign Loans: Boosts or Liabilities? New York Sen. Hillary Clinton joined the ranks of politicians who have infused their presidential campaigns with personal money. Usually, these loans are not a political liability, as much as a sign of weakness for a presidential bid.
NPR logo Personal Campaign Loans: Boosts or Liabilities?

Personal Campaign Loans: Boosts or Liabilities?

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has given her campaign a loan of $5 million, out of she and former President Bill Clinton's estimated $50 million fortune. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Other Self-Financed Candidates

Self-financing presidential and Congressional candidates come in two flavors: Some put in a little cash, relatively speaking, and some go all-in.

• Mitt Romney lent his campaign $35 million in 2007, and an unknown sum in January 2008. He always indicated that he wanted to avoid being a completely self-financed candidate, and pulled the plug as his fundraising dried up.

• In 2000, Jon Corzine, a retired Wall Street financier, spent $60 million to win an open Senate seat from New Jersey. He did not stint on TV ads. But his most strategic spending may have come during the Democratic primary, when he made contributions to party committees and candidates across the state. That money built a loyal base among the party faithful, who toiled for Corzine in the primary and the general election.

• In 1994, having just paid for his own election to the House, California Republican Rep. Michael Huffington launched a self-financed challenge to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. He spent $28 million — badly, according to political observers who thought he depended too much on TV ads. Still, he lost to Feinstein by just 2 percent in that year of Republican victories.

— Peter Overby

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent $35 million on his presidential campaign, out of his estimated $250 million fortune. Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly hide caption

toggle caption
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly

When New York Sen. Hillary Clinton lent $5 million to her campaign, she tentatively joined the ranks of other self-financed presidential candidates including Mitt Romney, John Kerry, Ross Perot and Steve Forbes.

Self-financing is often a sign that a campaign is financially floundering and has maxed out the contributions of its donor base. But political scientists say that voters don't necessarily see it as a liability.

"The voters really don't care," says Jennifer Steen, a political scientist at Boston College. "There may be a small segment of the electorate for whom it is a turnoff. But then there are just as many voters who think, 'Gee, these guys are not out raising money from special interests.'"

Clinton's self-financing is comparable in scale to what Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry poured into his 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry took out a $6 million loan on his Boston home to help him win the string of Democratic presidential nominating contests on Super Tuesday that year, but he lost in the general election to incumbent President George W. Bush.

And it's not just presidential races; candidates in other races have committed large sums of their own money.

Michael Bloomberg (a Republican turned independent) and Democrat Jon Corzine also have used their personal fortunes to boost their political careers. Bloomberg spent $75 million in his bid to become New York's mayor; Corzine poured $60 million into his gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey.

But for every tale of success, there exists a fable of a self-financier whose spending was to no avail. Billionaire publisher Steve Forbes unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for president twice. In 1996, he campaigned against Republican front-runner Robert Dole and spent $38 million. In 2000, Forbes ran again and spent $39 million.

In 1992, Texas millionaire H. Ross Perot pumped more than $63 million into an on-again, off-again bid, in a contest that, at times, had him running ahead of one of the major-party candidates. Ultimately, he finished third, but his 19 percent share of the vote was remarkably good for a third-party candidate. He ran again in 1996, but accepted public financing.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent more than $35 million of his own fortune in this year's GOP race. He won several smaller primaries or caucuses before dropping out on Feb. 7.

"Romney is the latest example in a long line of candidates that make the case that having a lot of money to communicate the message does not mean people want to hear it," says Michael Malbin, the executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit out of George Washington University.

When they give money to their campaigns, most self-financing candidates frame the transactions as loans. Candidates who lose commonly write off the loans as losses.

Candidates who win election to Congress can recover some of their cash by holding "debt-burning" events. At these events, lobbyists and political action committees eager to connect with new lawmakers give contributions that eventually can find their way into the lawmakers' personal bank accounts.

Political scientists say that Clinton's infusion of her own money into her presidential campaign is evidence of a larger cash-flow problem. Her rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, raised $32 million in January alone, compared with about $13.5 million for Clinton.

"Clinton was so widely perceived as a financial powerhouse that it has more of a psychological effect," says Anthony Corrado Jr., a Colby College professor who specializes in campaign finance. "It in no way contributes a sense of momentum to the campaign."

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, has tried some reverse spin. In a conference call with money raisers, campaign chair Terry McAuliffe said donors had been inspired by the way Clinton "stepped up to the plate."

Additional reporting by NPR's Peter Overby