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It seems that, in practice, the US Presidency is limited to rich people. For example, elections are extremely expensive and getting attention during the primaries and general election seems to require lots of money.

Is there any realistic way for a non-rich person to become US President?

By rich, I do not mean born to wealthy parents. What I mean is rich at the time of running. It seems to me that the only people who are actually likely to become president are people who are well-off financially.

  • Regarding your latest addition "in the years before running for office". Are you talking about any office, or the POTUS office? – Fizz Oct 20 at 7:42
  • for POTUS office – Burt Oct 23 at 20:08
  • According to this Forbes article, Pete Buttigieg currently has a net worth of approximately $100,000, which surely doesn't qualify as "rich". He's currently polling fourth in the Democratic primary, so I think it's fair to say that he at least has a shot at being elected president. – Jim Belk Oct 24 at 13:52

11 Answers 11

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To the extent that one needs prior fame to become president, and since fame brings money in the modern world, be it through books or speaker fees, the answer is that it's unlikely a pauper could become president. The way Sanders became a millionaire is insightful in this respect.

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    Fame, track record of something that would be shown to potential voters as success and competence. It's a bit hard to do that without earning some moderate money in the meantime. – Shadow1024 Oct 20 at 7:56
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    Becoming a millionaire isn't all that hard, these days. Assume you are around 60 when you run for President. You probably went to college and trained for a reasonably remunerative careet - say computer programming, for instance. Then you live fairly modestly, contribute the max to 401k/IRA (with employer matching), save & invest some of your income besides, buy a house and hang on to it for a few decades... With reasonable luck, or even just managing to avoid bad luck, you wake up one day to find that you're a millionaire. – jamesqf Oct 21 at 3:44
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    It's also the case that very few people go from private citizen to viable presidential candidate without any intervening governmental position. Government service seems to often open up possibilities for making more money than are available to most people, including giving paid speeches, getting board positions with companies, or lobbying. Whether or not one needs to be rich to become president of the U.S., it seems that the paths that most Presidents have followed bring with them opportunities to make a great deal of money relatively easily. – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Oct 21 at 18:07
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    But none of the non-millionaires has any realistic chance of becoming the nominee, let alone POTUS. – Barmar Oct 21 at 18:36
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    @jamesqf: "Becoming a millionaire isn't all that hard, these days." Yeah sure, if you come from a (probably white) privileged family where it's clear you're not broke because of some illnesses you had as a teenager, "of course" you go to college or university because you easily get a loan for your student debts etc. etc. Seriously, there's easily 40 million people in the US where the idea of having the money and time to run for any office, let alone President, is just laughable, and it's really, really not their own fault. – Torsten Schoeneberg Oct 23 at 20:47
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Historically speaking, the answer is no:

The 33rd president (ref. to Harry S. Truman) of the United States of America spent most of his life in financial turmoil. He had a modest upbringing, and years of bad investments and poorly performing businesses (..) kept him in debt

However, moving to more recent times, it seems that the answer is yes:

How much money do you need to run for president?

About $1 billion.

Of course, presidents don't spend their own personal money. Their campaigns raise and spend money. They raise money from small and large contributors and super PACs.

So how important is personal wealth in getting elected? Very. Money gets candidates in front of other rich people who fund campaigns. Money affords candidates time to campaign. How many successful presidents have won an election whole holding down a full-time job? Not many.

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    The $1 billion figure in the quote is in reference to how much money is necessary for a successful campaign, which is not at all the same as the personal wealth of the candidate. The question is about the personal wealth of candidates. – Joe Oct 21 at 18:22
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    @Joe the point is that the two aren't separate. You need someone(s) to bankroll it (i.e. rich friends). How do you have those people in your circle? By being wealthy yourself. – Jared Smith Oct 21 at 18:54
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    @JaredSmith No, you get those people in your circle by being a candidate running for public office. Most politicians are vastly less wealthy than people who contribute to political campaigns. – Joe Oct 21 at 18:57
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    @Alexei The consequence of that is the answer is "still no" and not "yes" as you claim. – Joe Oct 21 at 18:58
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    @JaredSmith Bill Clinton's net worth in definitely less than $1 million before he became President. Barack Obama's net worth in 2007 was estimated to be $1.3 million. – Joe Oct 21 at 19:08
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In theory, one could use relatively modest amounts of money to run for the city council, use good work to become better known, organize donors to run for the state House or Senate, use good work to become better known, organize donors to run for the Federal level, and so on.

Of course the political hopeful will no longer be "poor" by the time he or she gets into the presidential primary. The annual salary of a Senator is in the six figures.

Alternatively, produce a youtube spot which is so compelling that millions of viewers are ready to fund the campaign.

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    This path is not far from those taken by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, proving that it is absolutely viable. – Michael W. Oct 23 at 17:30
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Historically, the richest president (adjusted for inflation) is Donald Trump (multi-millionaire to multi-billionaire depending on who is doing accounting) and the second richest president was George Washington, which means that historically almost every President was not all that wealthy (comparatively) and many were rather poor (Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant had both had multiple businesses go under them before they became successes, Eisenhower was career military which means he never drew a salary bigger than then the one he made as President). Andrew Jackson and JFK were both rather wealthy from old money (Jackson from plantations in the South, and the Kennedys would like you to not look too closely as to what their businesses were all about, especially during Prohibition).

That said, most presidents are career politicians, which means many were likely lawyers, and good lawyers to boot, which in the United States can easily start with very nice salaries and it's not unheard of to have a six figure salary early on.

3

Andrew Johnson was born into a poor family, but later became a successful tailor.

  • I suppose it's relevant to this question how successful of a tailor Johnson was. He was also never elected President, which might also change things. – divibisan Oct 22 at 21:08
  • Johnson owned a few slaves before becoming [vice]president; according to Wikipedia "at least ten slaves". So he was probably not that poor by the standards of the time. – Fizz Oct 23 at 15:40
1

"Legally" do you need to be rich while running for office? No!

Does it help to be rich. Definitely is helpful.

The candidate is going to be dedicating up to two years to run for office. Someone existing Paycheck to Paycheck isn't likely to have the initial resources to manage a successful run.

Congressional Representatives have an advantage due to pre-scheduled breaks that can be used to run for the office without losing their income stream. The downside is they can quickly be viewed as a Washington Insiders that are part of the problem.

A person with pre-established wealth may be able to risk a few periods of zero earning until the candidacy is established. The downside there is the wealth can be used to create an image of being out of touch with the needs of society.

Charisma seems to be the best selling point for a presidential candidate when it incumbent is no longer allowed to run. In those years the most charismatic candidate of the party not occupying the White House is almost always the winner. In recent (post WWII) the exceptions to that rule have been:

  • Bill Clinton: Defeated a campaigning incumbent.
  • George H W Bush's term could be seen as a third term of the Reagan Era.
  • Ronald Reagan: Defeated a campaigning incumbent.
  • Jimmy Carter: Defeated a campaigning incumbent Gerald Ford.

In my opinion both Carter and Ford suffered from the uncertainty of the post-Watergate Era.

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    First 5 paragraphs of this answer are good, but then you drift off into general political commentary, without sources. – Rupert Morrish Oct 22 at 2:36
  • Carter suffered from his bungling of the Iran hostage situation more than anything. Ford suffered from his handling of the Vietnam situation. And no, Bush sr. wasn't just "a third term for Reagan", he was his own man in every aspect. – jwenting Oct 22 at 3:49
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    @jwenting - if by bungling, you mean he froze all of their assets and put them under financial pressure and didn't actually pay them off in any way, yeah, I guess he "bungled" that situation. Unlike the chickenhawks who always claim to not negotiate with terrorists, he didn't. Plus it didn't help that Reagan, who was negotiating by paying them, also insisted that they not release the hostages until after Carter was out of office. – PoloHoleSet Oct 22 at 17:57
1

The historical record certainly doesn't suggest the prospect of a successful Presidential candidate without considerable wealth any time soon. However I think other answers are overstating the importance of the wealth itself in past results.

Of course personal wealth is a helpful source for campaign expenses, but at the Presidential level these costs overwhelmingly dwarf the net worths of all but perhaps a handful of Presidents. If past candidates could somehow withdraw all their past personal financial sacrifices from the campaign funds primarily accumulated from other parties, I don't think many if any would turn a successful campaign into a failure.

This reveals something else about candidates who have considerable wealth – not only do they have useful resource to spend on campaigning but they also have at least some qualities that help them build – or at least retain – considerable wealth. Persuading people to give you money in your own private business is perhaps not that different from persuading people to give you money – or their time or other non-monetary support – for your political campaign.

We may never know for sure how important the money itself is compared to the ability to accumulate it, because the two are so deeply intertwined. However if we're drawing the boundaries of the question to count the candidates who weren't born into wealth but had accumulated it by the time they entered the Presidential race, if there is ever a counterpoint to this general rule it will be the opposite. I think the best chance of a candidate succeeding without considerable wealth to their name will come in the form of a candidate who lives a life full of wealth but loses it all not long before entering the Presidential race. Perhaps they sink everything into medical expenses for a family member or fighting vexatious litigation from a financial giant (these circumstances could even highlight some injustice that forms the premise of their candidacy) but have enough allies from their time in the networks of the wealthy that they can garner the necessary support to start a campaign. Then and only then will we see how important the wealth itself is to the process that so far has only been navigated by the wealthy.

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I think Fizz' answer is correct. Anyone on a path to becoming President will become rich.

However, I think the question gets cause and effect mixed up. It's not that you have to be rich to become President. Rather, fame is necessary to become President, and fame makes it easy to get rich.

0

None of the other answers are addressing the elephant in the room: Campaign finance laws.

Our country has struggled with taking money out of politics since its very founding. Several major attempts have been made over the years: the Tillman act in 1907 prohibited corporations from donating to political parties, but its punishments were watered down in committee and barely enforced afterwards. Public disclosure of campaign funding and spending caps were enacted via the Federal Corrupt Practices act. Smith-Connally and Taft-Hartley in the 40's extended those restrictions to unions as well.

All these laws continued to have loopholes or poor enforcement that allowed those who were ballsy enough to continue to inject money into politics. FECA in 1971 tried again with stricter punishments. It was further amended after Watergate to add the FEC as an enforcement agency, created a public financing option to allow those without millions or billions of dollars to run a federal campaign, and put spending caps on all federal campaigns. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court knocked down a large part of FECA in Buckley v. Valeo, ruling that money was a form of free speech.

This was the impetus that many in Congress were looking for to craft legislation that would ban private money in politics for good. Bill after bill was put up to fix these issues of inequality, and bill after bill was knocked down by bipartisan groups of Congressmen all through the 80's and most of the 90's.

Then came McCain-Feingold. Filibusters defeated it in 1997, several times in 1999, and was finally passed in 2002, banning foreign money and soft money in federal politics. Mitch McConnell attacked the bill in 2003 in McConnell v FEC, but it held. Opponents wouldn't give up, though. FEC v Wisconsin Right-to-Life carved out several exceptions to McCain-Feingold, 2006's Randall v Sorrell raised contribution limits, and 2010's Citizens United destroyed McCain-Feingold completely.

The issue comes down to the fact that money in politics continues to support money in politics. Until such a time that we have enough money-elected Congresscritters to pass a Constitutional Amendment banning money in politics, it will continue to be only the wealthy and connected-to-wealth who become President.

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No.

A person who is not rich could become President. Most money spent on campaigns come from campaign fund donations, so it's more important to be good at fundraising than it is to be personally rich. Candidates running for office in the US can also use campaign funds to pay themselves a salary, provided:

* The salary must not exceed the lesser of the minimum annual salary for the federal office sought or what the candidate received as earned income in the previous year;

And the only salary exception is for incumbent federal officeholders. The link above goes in-depth about the rules regarding use of campaign funds.

In practice, by the time most people run for President of the US, they have had a political track record that would include well-paying jobs or they have had successful business ventures. Probably the best example of someone currently running for President, who is not rich, is Pete Buttigieg who's estimated net worth is about $100,000 - but he is good at fundraising.

Since Rich/Poor is subjective, if a person is living paycheck-to-paycheck it's unlikely they would be able to manage their expenses immediately before and after their official campaign, so someone would need at least a modest amount of savings or a spouse/family member/friend who can cover expenses for a minimum of ~6 months.

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Whatever party is out of power, or whatever faction feels out of power (even when the party they support is in power) -- they want to manufacture public outrage and make people believe that the system is unfair. The idea that the White House is "purchased" by "money in politics" and "the one percent" is a propaganda trope, nothing more.

People seem to forget that Hillary Clinton's campaign and supporters out-spent Donald Trump's campaign and supporters, two to one. Trump did not have any public endorsements from prominent celebrities, Wall Street or Silicon Valley tycoons, people considered "elite" in American society. (Peter Thiel was an exception.)

Source: Did Hillary Clinton outspend Trump

On the other side, one recalls that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a bartender from the Bronx. She had no prior political activities, and was discovered, as luck would have it, by a handful of former Bernie Sanders' campaign staffers who wanted to replace an incumbent Democrat from a safe Democratic district. She spent almost nothing and successfully won a primary challenge against a very well-connected sitting Congressman with several committee positions. She is not president, obviously, but she at least has enough name recognition to eventually become a presidential contender.

My personal opinion is that, although voters tend to respect candidates who appear accomplished and have the trappings of success, there is no price tag on the presidency. The age of social media, and widespread disillusionment with the party establishments, mean that electoral power is basically up for grabs to any sufficiently motivated and charismatic individual(s), as Trump and Ms. Cortez have both proven beyond doubt.

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    Donald Trump, a businessman worth $3 billion, is not a valid counterexample to the claim that only rich people can become president. Neither is Ocasio-Cortez, by virtue of having never been elected president. – F1Krazy Oct 22 at 21:08

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