How much does it cost to run for President of the United States? The answer: pretty much whatever you want to spend. If you want to spend less than $5,000, you do not even have to register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). You won’t get on ballots though; you will have to be a write-in candidate, and the vast majority of Americans will not know who you are — unless perhaps you go viral on YouTube and/or marry a Kardashian.
How much does it take to win a Presidential election? That is a different story. Based on current trends, it is well into the hundreds of millions of dollars to be taken seriously as a top tier candidate. Hillary Clinton recently topped the quarterly record for campaign contributions, reaching $45 million in the three months since announcing her candidacy. President Obama's $42 million in one quarter was the previous record.
Republican frontrunner Jeb Bush does not have fundraising totals for his Presidential campaign yet, because he waited until June to declare. Hilary has a large head start in that respect, but Bush has been furiously fund-raising using a different method — the Super Political Action Committee (Super PAC).
Super PACs are different from regular PACs in several important ways. PACs are allowed to donate money directly to candidates and are often affiliated with candidates, and thus are limited in the amount they can donate to candidates. The current PAC limit is $2,700 per election for individual donors. Other PAC limits may be found on the FEC website.
An artifact of the infamous Citizen's United "corporations are people" Supreme Court case, Super PACs have no limit on contributions. Corporations, labor unions, and other organizations may contribute as much as they want.
The catch is that a Super PAC must be independent and cannot contribute directly to a candidate and must disclose their donors (although by funneling through a non-profit organization, disclosure rules can often be avoided or obfuscated). Super PACs can run ads supporting preferred candidates or bashing their opponents — they are just not able to coordinate with the candidate's campaign or have a direct connection.
Many loopholes allow candidates to raise money through Super PACs they support and remain separate enough to stay within the law. Jeb Bush delayed his campaign specifically to raise as much money as possible directly through Super PACs. You are not violating any laws if you have not declared as a Presidential candidate yet.
Bush's supported Super PAC, Right to Rise, has reportedly raised around $100 million and will certainly climb higher as time passes. Other candidates are vying for the Super PAC money, as it can dwarf direct campaign contributions. Senator Ted Cruz caught attention shortly after announcing his candidacy with his incredible $31 million in Super PAC fundraising within a week. Other candidates, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, reportedly have tens of millions in Super PAC money available.
Super PACs are often associated with Republicans, but Democrats play the game as well. Hillary Clinton's supported Super PAC, Priorities USA Action, reportedly has a goal of $500 million in fundraising.
Even with these astronomical numbers, campaigns often outspend their means. In breaking down the 2012 campaign, OpenSecrets.org estimated that the combined total spent by both candidates on their campaigns was almost $1.12 billion. Throw in the outside Super PAC money and national party spending and the figure is estimated at $2.6 billion.
Super PACs are hitting their stride this year and there are currently enough candidates between the two parties to put together two baseball teams (and there may eventually be enough for two football teams). It's inconceivable that overall spending will not rise significantly in this campaign.
To address the original question: you can spend as much as you want in running for President, but if you want to win, the ante is somewhere around $500 million, and it may actually top $1 billion per major party candidate this year.
Yes, it seems outrageous, but keep things in economic perspective. We spent almost $600 million on snacks during the last Super Bowl. Surely, a Presidential election is more important than halftime guacamole.
Hillary Clinton Photo by Spark1498 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons | Jeb Bush Photo by Gage Skidmore () [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons