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How to get rich by running for president

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

The year 2008 was great for Mike Huckabee—but not as a politician. The former Arkansas governor bailed out of the presidential race in March of that year after losing steam in the early primary elections. But simply running for president elevated Huckabee to the status of celebrity, while helping him build a devoted following among southern and Midwestern evangelicals. Huckabee has since converted the renown that comes with running for national office into a business enterprise that has made him wealthy, with a palatial beachfront home, access to private jets and other perks of the 1%.

Huckabee is running for president again, of course, which makes him one of perhaps 12 or 15 candidates likely to enjoy free media attention and additional publicity funded by donors—even though polls show they have virtually no chance of winning. The presence of so many obscure candidates in the 2016 race—Jim Gilmore, Lincoln Chafee, James Webb, George Pataki, and so on—prompts an obvious question: Why are they running? Huckabee’s experience suggests one answer: Because running for president can be a highly lucrative form of work.

No serious candidate will admit to running for president purely as a self-promotional stunt. Some may be trying to gain exposure for a more serious run for office in the future. Others may be using a run to promote their companies or personal brands, like Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000 and Donald Trump now. And many candidates no doubt feel they have a serious message to convey to voters, while perhaps also angling for a Cabinet position, ambassadorship, or other plum job if their party’s nominee ends up winning the White House. “You can emerge from the campaign as a power broker, as somebody influential with the media and with lobbyists,” says Julian Zelizer of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. “I’m sure that’s on the mind of some of these candidates.”

Still, savvy candidates can nonetheless parlay the fame that comes from televised debates, a decent showing in a couple of early primaries, and wall-to-wall media coverage into a juicy 7- or 8-figure income. Huckabee serves as a good case study of the business of running for president because his financial disclosures represent an instructive before-and-after story. Huckabee was Arkansas governor for 12 years, from 1996 to 2007, living for most of that time on a modest salary of around $70,000. He announced his first run for president almost immediately after leaving the governor’s office, in January 2007, when he also started giving paid speeches and accepting other business offers fitting an ex-governor.

At the time, Huckabee was comfortable but far from rich. On the 2007 disclosure form he filed (required for all presidential candidates), Huckabee listed business income of about $325,000, including his governor’s salary, book royalties and a one-time consulting fee of $40,000. He also earned speaking fees of nearly $140,000 during the 15 months prior to filing the 2007 disclosure form, most of it in the first quarter of 2007. Overall, his annual income back then was close to  $400,000.

That was pretty good, but life was about to get much better for "Huck," as he's known. After dropping out of the 2008 race, he scored a Fox News TV show and a national radio program. Huckabee had written several books before running for president, but the books he’s written since then have sold much better, including his 2015 bestseller "God, Guns, Grits & Gravy." Huckabee now earns two to three times as much for giving a speech -- and he gives a lot more of them. He also runs a group of companies called Blue Diamond that handle his travel, publishing ventures and other lines of business, with his wife Janet on the payroll of at least one of them. Here’s a summary of Huckabee’s income from various sources, before and after his 2008 presidential run:

  2007 2015
Paid speeches 15 44
Income from speaking fees $138,500 $975,700
Average per speech $9,233 $22,175
Business income, including book royalties $325,691 $3 million
Investment income Between $11,108 and $30,500 Between $173,000 and $477,500
Rental income $0 Between $200,002 and $2 million

Figures in most cases are for the 15 months ended March 31 of the year in question.

Sources: Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics 

Another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, made a similar move toward the politico-celebrity business model after his first run for president in 2012. After serving as a U.S. senator for 12 years, Santorum earned close to $1 million per year as a consultant, corporate director, paid pundit and think-tank fellow, according to financial disclosure forms he filed in 2011. That filing included no speaking fees or book royalties. But the 2015 form Santorum just filed shows about $330,000 in income earned from 23 speeches he delivered, an average of more than $14,000 per speech. Santorum now earns less in other forms of income, but he's CEO of a Christian film studio called Echolight, with a salary of $178,305. Overall, he earns slightly less than he did as a behind-the-scenes operative fresh out of the Senate.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with cashing in on fame, as countless other Americans have done in just about every industry. Huckabee, for his part, is an entrepreneurial character with a folksy personality that makes him popular in broad patches of middle America. Santorum has gravitated away from a traditional revolving-door career and found a way to make a living that's more in line with the conservative social values he espouses as a candidate. Both are capitalizing on opportunity in ways many other Americans would if they could.

Besides, Huckabee and Santorum are serfs compared with some other prominent candidates. Democrat Hillary Clinton typically earns at least $225,000 per paid speech, and she pulled in nearly $12 million in speaking fees in the 15 months ended March 31 of this year. Her husband Bill, the former president, earns even more. Hillary Clinton, of course, also ran for president in 2008, but it’s harder to do the same type of before-and-after analysis of her finances because she spent virtually no time as a private citizen, free to rake in cash, until 2013; she was a sitting senator when she ran for president in 2008 and then became secretary of state in 2009, staying in that job for four years.

Republican Jeb Bush hasn’t yet filed the required financial disclosure forms, but he has released tax returns showing his income soared after he stepped down as governor of Florida in 2008, partly because he promptly jumped onto several corporate boards. Republican Carly Fiorina and Democrat Lincoln Chafee are multimillionaires. Then there’s Donald Trump, who critics contend is running one of the most self-serving campaigns of all time, even if it’s costing his far-flung enterprise some business.

The best thing about the business of running for president is that other people typically pay for it. A few superrich candidates fund their own campaigns—as Donald Trump is doing, and Steve Forbes and Ross Perot did before him—but most candidates spend only what they’re able to raise from donors. Huckabee raised about $16 million when he ran in 2008. All of it came from donors, meaning none of his campaign spending was self-financed. But Huckabee’s haul was a tiny fraction of what party nominees John McCain and Barack Obama raised, which limited his staying power in the primary races.

Huckabee's campaign did not respond when asked to comment for this story, but Huckabee appears to be running the same kind of thrifty operation he did in 2007 and 2008. His campaign  has raised about $2 million so far for the 2016 race, with none of it, as before, coming from his own expanded pocket. A so-called super PAC, financed mostly by two wealthy donors, has raised another $3.6 million it can spend on Huckabee's behalf. With Jeb Bush having raised more than $100 million so far, Huckabee will likely end up heavily outspent again in 2016, but he’s high enough in the polls to easily make the cut for a 10-candidate nationally televised debate and garner enough visibility to coast into next year’s primaries.

Huckabee, who now resides in Florida, has reportedly developed a taste for the good life, prompting controversy over whether he’s duping donors into funding what is basically a private venture that principally benefits himself and his family. But Zelizer of Princeton says most donors know what they’re paying for when they help fund a low-probability candidate. “Some of these donors may be gullible, but I think they’re making other bets,” says Zelizer. “Maybe they’re able to walk into the room with a power broker.” There are worse ways to spend money, if you've got a lot to spend.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.