How Much Did Leslie Knope’s City Council Campaign Cost?

NBC’s Parks and Recreation’s seven-year run ends tonight with their series finale. Leslie Knope’s drive, decent humanity and love for her town built a loyal following of fans for the show. However, one thing always bothered me: the cost of her campaign for City Council in Season 4. Seriously, a bus tour? I’ve run several local legislative races around Iowa, and I was amazed at what she chose to spend on for her campaign in the fictional town of Pawnee.

So as the book closes on our favorite Indiana government employee, I decided to add up all the expenses from her city council race. A lot of these, of course, are estimates. They’re based off my own experience, conversations with Iowa political consultants and a pricing guide from Carter Printing in Des Moines. After binge-watching Season 4 and taking copious notes, this is what I came up with:


large banner at bowlingLeslie sure loved campaign banners. Most pros will suggest only buying one of these to use at your larger events. I counted over a dozen throughout the course of her run (sizes are rough eye estimates)

2×10 Banner for the Announcement (Episode 4.1) – $150
3×12 Banners for the Re-Launch (4.11) – $270
3×8 Headquarters Banner (4.12) – $180
4×3 Banner (4.13) – $90
4 2×6 Banner at Victory Party (4.22) – $360
Big 10×5 Backdrop Banner at Victory Party (4.22) – $375
2 4×8 Banner at Victory Party (4.22) – $480

Total Banners Cost: $1,905


Tom must have been in charge of swag purchases. The Knope campaign went with the fancy corrugated yard signs, which always drives up costs. I’m guessing on a lot of amounts here from what was visible in the episode or the amount you’d likely buy.

Basic Posters (4.5) – $100
Buttons (4.5) – $200
Bumper Stickers, approx. 250 (4.12) – $400
Letterhead, approx. 5,000 (4.16) – $300
Yard Signs, the nice corrugated kind, approx. 500 (4.16) – $5,000
2×4 Posters (4.17) – $100
“Ramp Up Pawnee” pamphletes, approx. 250 (4.17) – $150
Coffee Mugs with Logo (4.17) – $100
Full-color Handout fliers, approx 10,000 (Jerry said he gave out 1,000 in a day) (4.18) – $2,000

Total Printing Cost: $8,350


Jerry and Donna stuffed a whole lot of envelopes in episode 4.18. Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear Leslie conducted a full direct mail campaign, usually one of the most costly (and also most effective) aspects of a campaign. Based on the number of boxes Jerry had around him, I’m calculating these numbers off of a 2,500-piece volunteer mailing.

Envelopes with Return Address (4.18) – $250
Stamps (4.18) – $1,225
Full-Color Mail Fliers (4.18) – $500
10 Per Page Labels (4.18) – $200
Envelope sealers (4.18) – $10

Total Mailings Cost: $2,185


Few city-level races of this size do polling. They cost a lot more than what you’d think, anywhere between ten and fifteen thousand. Ben ordered at least two polls (it might have been more, but it’s possible the polls they were discussing in later episodes were public ones).

Poll on Leslie’s Birthplace Controversy (4.3) – $12,500
Poll on the Ben Relationship Scandal (4.10) – $12,500

Total Polling Cost: $25,000


focus groupLeslie got a full briefing book on Bobby Newport. That probably cost a lot considering the research required to detail all of the Sweetums candy empire’s business dealings. She also held two focus groups in just one episode. Those things are VERY expensive.

Research Book on Local Business Leaders (4.5) – $2,500
Opposition Research on Bobby Newport (4.12) – $15,000
10-person Focus Group (4.13) – $20,000
Research on the guy from the focus group who didn’t like Leslie (4.13) – $2,500
2nd Focus Group (4.13) – $20,000

Total Research Cost: $60,000


Considering the huge expenses Leslie’s campaign incurred on less-important budget items, you’d think she’d save some for TV ads. Instead, she only bought time for one ad during a major basketball tournament, which she didn’t even run because of a dispute with Ben. It’s very difficult to estimate the point costs in the Pawnee media market, so we’ll be kind here to Leslie and low-ball the cost of an ad during a high-ratings sporting event.

Editing for 3 Campaign Ads (4.12) – $300
Ad Purchase (4.12) – $7,500

Total Advertising Cost: $7,800

Bus Tour

campaign busDo I really need to explain why you shouldn’t rent a full bus tour for a city council race in a town of about 50,000? This is the estimate for a full wrap, rental and driver cost for a week. At least she probably didn’t spend much on gas just driving around Pawnee.

Bus Tour (4.21) – $20,000



Another section where Leslie could have saved some funds. Again, some rough estimates.

Announcement Podium and Stage (4.1) – $250
City Ice Rink (4.11) – $250
Recording Studio for Andy’s Campaign Song (4.15) – $750
Ramp and 4 Movers for Senior Center Event (4.15) – $750
Hotel Ballroom for Victory Party (4.22) – $5,000
Full Bar at Victory Party (4.22) – $3,000
2 Security Officers at Victory Party (4.22) – $300

Total Rental Cost: $10,300


This part of the budget will kill you if you’re not careful.

Bunting (4.1) – $50
Plastic Campaign Name Holders (4.5) – $25
Precinct Map (4.11) – $15
Red Carpet for Relaunch (4.11) – $200
Photographer for Bowling Event (4.13) – $500
4 Campaign Dancers (4.21) – $1,000
Produced “The Groffle Waffle” Book for her Education Policy (4.21) – $5,000
Balloon Drop (4.22) – $50

Total Miscellaneous Cost: $6,840

Banners: $1,905
Printing: $8,350
Mailing: $2,185
Polling: $25,000
Research: $60,000
Advertising: $7,800
Bus Tour: $20,000
Rentals: $10,300
Miscellaneous: $6,840

Grand Total: $142,380

rallyAs you can see, the Knope campaign’s budget was completely upside-down. Huge up-front expenses on polling and research left them with nothing for direct voter contact. A classic rookie candidate mistake.

Still, they did save money in key areas. The campaign was run out of Andy and April’s house, so no office rental costs. Ron gave some in-kind donations by building Leslie’s second podium himself and providing food for the debate-watch party. Newport paid his campaign manager $250,000 for six weeks work, while Ben worked for free. However, how valuable that was is an open question. Ben got lots of praise for running Leslie’s campaign, but I would have fired someone who presented me with this budget. Hopefully Jerry was in charge of the finance report so Ben’s mistakes were never discovered. Then again, Leslie won, so what do I know?

Farewell Parks and Rec crew. You showed us a government that actually worked and was led by public servants who cared. We’ll miss you.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 2/24/15
All images are screenshots from Parks and Recreation


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