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In delegates per dollar, Donald Trump crushes the field

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist

If running for president were a business, Donald Trump, Inc. would have the biggest profits and the lowest costs.

Trump is rewriting the rules for how to mount a compelling bid for president, and part of the disruption involves the amount of money required to win. Under the old rules, a successful presidential campaign required hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from rich donors, much of it going to super PACs. Trump is winning with far less, proving that money doesn’t necessarily win elections.

It’s no secret that Trump’s entertaining bluster earns him hour upon hour of free airtime, which most other candidates would have to pay for. But with the primary election season now 80% over, it’s also possible to quantify the Trump Effect and determine what his unique blend of fame and notoriety is really worth.

So Yahoo Finance tallied the campaign spending for each candidate, along with the delegates and votes each has won, to see who’s spending their money most effectively. Here are the numbers for each candidate who has won at least one delegate:

Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Politico, Fairvote.org, Yahoo Finance. Note: Some figures don't add up due to rounding.
Sources: Center for Responsive Politics, Politico, Fairvote.org, Yahoo Finance. Note: Some figures don't add up due to rounding.

In business terms, Trump is the most efficient candidate by far, with a marginal cost, if you will, of about $50,000 per delegate. All that airtime gives him massive scale, allowing him to spread his costs over a huge marketplace and push down the dollar-to-delegate ratio. The cost per delegate is roughly four times higher for Ted Cruz and John Kasich. As for Jeb Bush and the other candidates who won a single-digit number of candidates, they’re like startups that raised a lot of money for research and development but only managed to build a prototype or two before going out of business—making their dollar-to-delegate ratio stratospherically high.

You can’t compare dollar-to-delegate ratios between Republicans and Democrats, because each party requires a different number of delegates to win the presidential nomination. But comparing Bernie Sanders with Hillary Clinton shows that both campaigns are at least in the same ballpark when it comes to the cost per delegate. If there’s any surprise, it’s that the Sanders campaign isn’t really the shoestring operation some supporters might think it is.

Sanders has won 17 out of 40 states so far, but he’s spent $122,000 per delegate to do it. That’s 45% more than the $85,000 per delegate Clinton has spent. Clinton has won in highly populated states such as New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania, where campaign spending covers more ground, while Sanders has picked up more rural states like Maine, Vermont, Wyoming, Idaho and Utah, where aggressive campaigning might nab the winner a fairly small handful of delegates. Sanders has raised an impressive $180 million so far, but he also told the New York Times recently that he plans to lay off several hundred staffers, a sign his campaign is squeezed for cash and entering a sort of caretaker status. The fact that he has to spend more for fewer delegates puts Sanders at a competitive disadvantage to Clinton.

If the general election comes down to Trump v. Clinton, Trump would seem to start out with a marginal-cost advantage. The dollar-to-vote ratio—which, unlike delegates, can be applied comparably to both Republicans and Democrats—shows that Trump gets about three times more bang for the buck than Clinton does. There’s an unknown variable, however—the quality of the competition, since it costs more to run against a tough rival than a pushover. Clinton aims to prove she's a much tougher rival than Trump's fellow Republicans, and her advisers will work hard making sure she has the better policy ideas. They might want to think about improving marginal costs, as well. As Trump himself knows – it works in business.

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