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These candidates are getting rich running for president

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Ben Carson fashions himself a political novice, but he’s an expert at one crucial political skill: cashing in on public exposure.

Carson, perhaps more than any other presidential candidate, is profiting handsomely from the fame he has gained as a popular upstart contender for the Republican nomination. And unlike most candidates who put their business interests on hold while campaigning, Carson has continued to earn lavish speaking fees as a candidate, while also raking in book royalties and income from other sources.

Right behind Carson in the presidential windfall sweepstakes is Donald Trump, whose new book, "Crippled America," has sold more than 50,000 copies in less than one month, according to Nielsen Bookscan and other sources. Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have also penned timely books that are selling well as they ride the coattails of the campaign.

Hillary Clinton’s two books, by contrast, have generated little new interest this year, perhaps because she's already sold nearly 1.7 million copies, combined, and everybody who wants to know about her already does. New books by Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders haven’t really caught on, either. And a few of the candidates, including Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Martin O’Malley appear to have done little so far to profit from the visibility brought by the campaign—though there will be opportunities to do that later, of course.

Much of the attention lavished on the presidential campaign focuses on policy debates, temperament, scandal and who’s most qualified to govern. At Yahoo Finance, we’ve been looking into one other aspect of the 2016 race: Running for president as a business model, even for candidates with little chance of winning. Earlier this year, for instance, we explored how the exposure Huckabee garnered while running for president in 2008 helped boost his name recognition, which in turn generated a sevenfold increase in his income from paid speeches and a similar gusher of book income.

Here are rough estimates of the earnings of eight presidential candidates from select book sales in 2015. Totals for each author are highlighted in yellow:

Sources: Nielsen Bookscan, Amazon, Yahoo Finance estimates

(Methodology: We used sales figures from Nielsen Bookscan, which captures about two-thirds of all U.S. book sales. Year-to-date totals are through the week of Nov. 18. We computed income by assuming the author gets 15% of the cover price for every hardcover sale and 10% for paperbacks, which are fairly typical royalty percentages. We then increased that figure by 30% to account for sales Bookscan doesn’t track. Notes: Since Jeb Bush's 2015 book, Reply All, was self-published, no sales data is available. But the book ranks below 150,000 in its category on Amazon, indicating poor sales. Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley and Rick Santorum either have no books to their name or they've earned less than $10,000 from book sales so far in 2015.)

Our income numbers are probably low, since we didn’t account for the advance against royalties publishers typically pay authors, which can easily top $1 million for best-selling celebrities. Popular authors may also be able to negotiate better terms than what might be standard in the industry. Carson, for instance, earned as much as $3.2 million on book royalties during the 18 months ending June 30, 2015, according to disclosure forms filed with the government.

Carson, Trump and Huckabee have sold more than 500,000 books combined this year, but all three have been best-selling authors in the past. So their success as authors this year can only partly be attributed to their visibility as candidates. Trump has said he's donating the profits from iatest book to charity, and since he's a billiionaire funding his own campaign, he's one candidate who doesn't need the money. Still, Trump is a marketing genius who will probably find new ways to capitalize on his fame as a candidate for as long as he’s in the public eye.

Cruz is a new author off to a strong start, and since his presidential campaign is well-financed, he’ll continue to be a media presence well into next year’s primary elections, adding to his name recognition and probably his book sales.

Capitalizing on political celebrity

There are many other ways to make money by cashing in on political fame, of course, and Ben Carson seems adept at them. After retiring as a neurosurgeon in 2013, he took a stint as a commentator for Fox News, which made him a public figure familiar to many. Forms filed with the government show that from Jan. 1, 2014 through May 5, 2015—the day he declared he was running for president—Carson traveled nearly every week to deliver paid speeches. During that time, he delivered 141 paid speeches for about $30,000 apiece. Total income from those speeches was about $4.2 million.

Candidates typically suspend such income-generating activities once they’re officially running for office, especially at the presidential level. But Carson has given at least seven paid speeches since declaring his candidacy, earning more than $50,000 apiece for at least three of them. (The official forms don’t provide exact figures, but instead give a range; four speeches earned Carson between $15,001 and $50,000, while three others paid between $50,001 and $100,000.) That could indicate Carson’s value is rising, because the most he earned for a single speech before declaring his candidacy was $48,500 for an address he delivered to the Michael W. Haley Foundation of Greensboro, N.C., in April of this year.

Carson’s campaign says the seven paid speeches he has given while a presidential candidate were fundraisers Carson committed to well before deciding to run. “He feels very strongly about maintaining his contractual and moral commitments, so he chose not to cancel anything,” Carson spokesperson Doug Watts told Yahoo Finance. “We were assiduous in complying with the law.”

That’s important, because campaign money can’t be mingled with personal funds, and Carson seems to have held political events on some of the same trips he made as a paid speaker. “The custom is, you stop doing those kinds of things once you’re a candidate,” says Larry Noble of the Campaign Legal Center. “It becomes very hard to distinguish a paid speech from a political event the campaign is paying for.” Watts says the Carson campaign kept separate accounts for personal and political events, while adding that Carson has not booked any paid events since becoming a candidate.

Of the 14 major candidates still running for president, only one can win, obviously, which means the rest will have ample opportunity to profit on whatever renown they’ve attained as political celebrities. Hillary Clinton typically earned $225,000 per speech before becoming a candidate, and she was in high demand. Mike Huckabee’s association with several large religious groups provided a natural market for speaking engagements and merchandise sales. Carson, Fiorina, Huckabee and Santorum were paid media commentators. All the candidates are free to go back to those gigs once the campaign is over, with a good chance they’ll earn more thanks to the celebrity they’ve gained as candidates.

Members of Congress and many governors face limits on the outside income they can earn while in office—but they often cash in once their terms are over. John Kasich, for instance spent seven years as a banker at Lehman Brothers between his career as an Ohio Congressman and his first election as the state’s governor, in 2010. Since Marco Rubio isn’t running for reelection to the Senate when his term expires in 2016, he’ll be free to earn as much money as he can in the private sector (if he doesn’t win the presidency) as a commentator, speaker, author, corporate director or businessman of some kind. As a consolation prize, not bad.

Note: This story has been updated to indicate that Donald Trump has promised to donate profits from his latest book to charity.

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