Common and uncommon campaign expenses, from Hilton to Hooters

Presidential candidates are required to file their campaign expenditures with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and the FEC makes these records publicly available.  This is the first in our series of articles analyzing expenditures in the 2016 Presidential campaign, and in this one we focus on spending with particular companies:

  • What companies were the top recipients of campaign spending?
  • What companies were used by the largest number of campaigns?
  • What well-known companies received expenditures from only a single campaign?
  • What well-known companies received expenditures from exactly two campaigns?

First, we note two caveats.  These expenditures were made by the campaigns, not necessarily by the candidates themselves; for example, one campaign bought food at Hooters, but it seems unlikely the candidate would have gone there personally.  Second, these should not be mistaken for corporate endorsements of candidates; in most cases, the companies had no way of knowing that someone buying pizzas or reserving hotel rooms was a campaign staffer, and routine commercial transactions should not be taken as reflecting a company’s political views.

The FEC has expenditure records for 25 Presidential campaigns in 2016, consisting of  five Democrats, 17 Republicans, and three third-party or independent candidates:list-of-candidates

The only prominent candidate for whom the FEC had no expenditure records was Lincoln Chafee, a Democrat.  Jim Gilmore, a Republican, had far fewer expenditures than any other candidate for whom records were on file; Gilmore had just 24 different payees, nine of whom were staffers and none of which could be considered well-known companies.  This article will therefore disregard Chafee and Gilmore, focusing on the 24 candidates for whom large data sets are available.

First, we identify the top 20 companies by total expenditures.  (“Primary type of business” was derived from the companies’ own websites and from expense descriptions in the FEC records.)top-20The lion’s share of these companies provide marketing and ad-buying services, with charter air travel being the next largest group.  All but four were used by only a single campaign each, and only one (American Express) is a company used by ordinary consumers.

However, the most striking observation is that the list is very top-heavy:  the top company, GMMB, received more money than the next five companies combined.  It is no secret that Clinton outspent the other candidates by a large margin, but it is unusual that so much of her spending went to a single company.  Hers was the only campaign that spent a majority of its money (53.6%) on a single vendor:percent-spent-on-largest-payee

In fact, GMMB received more than one-fifth of the money spent by all 24 candidates combined.  After Clinton, the campaigns that spent the next largest percentages of their money on individual vendors were Gary Johnson (41.2%) and Marco Rubio (40.1%).

Next we focus on the companies that were most widely used.  The following table shows all 27 companies that were used by at least three-quarters of the campaigns:most-common-vendors-v2

All are reasonably familiar consumer brands.  Roughly a quarter were airlines, while another quarter were hotel chains.  Four companies (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hilton, and United Airlines) were used by all 24 campaigns.

Marriott International includes many brands other than Marriott itself, such as Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Sheraton, and Residence Inn, so it is natural to wonder whether the Lessig campaign used any of these other brands, in which case Marriott International would be the fifth company to claim 100% use.  Unfortunately for Marriott, Lessig’s only lodging-related expenses were with Hilton, a hotel-finding app called Hotel Tonight, and the Lotte New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan.

Next we investigate the other extreme:  what companies were unique to particular campaigns?  Surprisingly, uniqueness is the norm:  of more than 22,000 distinct payees, fewer than 1500 appeared in the expenditures of more than one candidate.  In part, this is because one-third of the payments were made to campaign staffers, while many of the others were one-off payments at local rental companies, non-chain restaurants, or other small businesses.  If we limit ourselves to well-known consumer brands that are nationally or regionally widespread,1 then we have a manageable set of single-campaign companies, listed in the following table:one-candidate-vendors-v4

Lastly, we identify companies used by exactly two campaigns because this makes for some unexpected pairings.  The diagram below is not exhaustive2 due to limits of space and topology.  It is included primarily for entertainment value, evoking a mental picture of Mike Huckabee and Bernie Sanders running into each other in a Toys R Us, or Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton getting together for ribs at Famous Dave’s.two-cand-final-pic v6


Our upcoming articles about campaign expenses will explore the following topics:

  • Party differences in vendor selection (including surprising results for fast food restaurants, gas stations, and IBM vs. Apple)
  • Campaign spending on foreign-owned businesses (including one in the top 20 by dollars spent, one used by nearly every campaign, and unusually conscientious record-keeping by the Sanders campaign)
  • Geographic distribution of campaign spending (can certain expenses be used as indicators of a campaign’s “ground game,” and do these correlate with success in state primaries?)


  • The 20 companies that received the most campaign spending were primarily marketing and ad-buying companies, followed by charter air services.  Almost all of these companies were used by only one campaign each.
  • By contrast, 27 companies were used by more than three-quarters of the campaigns, and these were familiar consumer brands used for travel, lodging, supplies, and shipping.  Four were used by all 24 campaigns:  American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hilton, and United Airlines.
  • Dozens of well-known companies were used by only one or two of the campaigns.


1. If we included well-known payees without these additional restrictions, then there would be more than a hundred additional payees, such as airports, universities rented as venues, local restaurants or hotels that are nationally famous (Famous Original Ray’s Pizza in New York, Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC, several Las Vegas hotels), local utilities (Consolidated Edison), and businesses used primarily by other businesses (Securitas, Oakwood corporate rentals).  These would have made the table unwieldy, but more importantly they seemed less interesting because they are not everyday brands that people throughout the United States might use.  For Gary Johnson, Planet Hollywood includes one expense at a Planet Hollywood restaurant in Washington DC and one expense at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, but we consider these as falling under a single brand.

2. In alphabetical order, here are the other well-known companies that were used by exactly two campaigns but did not fit in the diagram:  California Pizza Kitchen (Cruz and Huckabee), Carl’s Jr. (Carson and Huckabee), Family Dollar (Carson and Clinton), Giant (Carson and Clinton), (Clinton and Fiorina), Raceway (Carson and Huckabee), Schlotzsky’s (Carson and Cruz), Simon & Schuster (Jindal and Kasich), TD Bank (Christie and Lessig), Uno Chicago Grill (Christie and Trump), and Walt Disney World Resorts (Huckabee and Sanders).  Clinton and Trump were the only campaigns to report expenses at Kinko’s, but Kinko’s merged with FedEx in 2004, and the Kinko’s name was dropped in 2008, so we do not consider this a separate brand, much less a separate company.


All data for this article came from the Federal Election Commission’s website for the 2016 Presidential election.  (Expenditures are accessed from the “Expenditures” tab on the right side of the webpage.)  We used a cut-off date of November 28, 2016—three weeks after the last full day of campaigning—though some belated expense reports might continue being filed afterward.  All names in the FEC system appeared as entered by campaign staffers on reporting forms, so the time-consuming part for us was making vendor names consistent across the 278,000 lines in the resulting spreadsheet.  For example, a single vendor might appear as Enterprise, Enterprise Rent a Car, Enterprise Car Rental, and ELRAC, to say nothing of typographical errors.  We treated two payees as the same only if they were the same brand; we did not equate different brands falling under the same corporate umbrella, such as the various hotel chains of Marriott International or the various restaurant chains of Yum! Brands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s