Hours after dropping out of the presidential race this month, Rick Santorum fired off an e-mail to supporters asking for “one more” contribution: “I am planning to do everything in my power to bring a change about in the White House,” he wrote. “But our campaign has debt, and I cannot be free to focus on helping defeat [Barack Obama] with this burden.” Santorum maintains his campaign is less than $1 million in debt, and his adviser John Brabender says, “We feel good that in short order we’ll be able to wrap things up.” Yet if history is any indication, the candidate may be living with the financial legacy of his failed candidacy for a long time. Running for president is exhausting and all-consuming. Putting an end to a presidential campaign can be a nightmare that lasts years. There are employees, consultants, lawyers, and ad makers clamoring to be paid, ad buys to cancel, contracts and legal disputes to settle, office space, computers, phones, and furniture around the country to unload, and a staggering pile of disclosure forms and other paperwork to complete before the Federal Election Commission will certify that a campaign is officially over. “I would often say to people: Imagine starting a $100 million business from zero, building it up, running it, and then bringing it back down to zero all within nine months or a year’s time,” says Joe Stoltz, the FEC’s former director of auditing. “You don’t see many businesses come and go that quickly. It’s not easy.”
Four years after running for president, Hillary Clinton has yet to close out her campaign (she owes $245,000 to a consultant, FEC records show). Same for John McCain (his campaign has leftover funds he still has to disburse); Rudy Giuliani (he owes various people a total of $2.6 million); and John Edwards (he has unpaid bills of $333,586). Bill Clinton last ran for president in 1996. The FEC has not closed the book on his campaign either—he’s disputing $319,630 in debts. It’s hard even to remember that Bob Barr, Al Sharpton, Chris Dodd, and Alan Keyes ever ran for president. The FEC hasn’t forgotten; each of their campaigns is officially ongoing. In all, 38 past presidential contenders going back 16 years are still candidates, if only in the eyes of the federal government.
Santorum and several of his fellow GOP contenders have joined the ranks of former contenders in limbo. Herman Cain says contributions started drying up late last year as allegations swirled about his extramarital affairs. He dropped out in part to avoid spending years putting his debts behind him. “As a businessman, I knew if I continued on as contributions started to drop off, I’d end up with significant debt,” he says in an e-mail. His campaign owes $450,000—the amount Cain lent to his presidential bid. (The FEC still counts that as money owed.) To settle up, Cain can raise money to pay himself back, or choose to forgive the debt.