After a president leaves office, it’s his chance to leave the relatively low-paying world of public service and start bringing in some serious coin, whether through book royalties, business ventures, or speaking fees (Bill Clinton made more than $13 million talking last year alone).
But what about the candidates vying for the most important job in America—how do they, and specifically their earnings, compare to the average American? To find out how candidates’ earnings matched up to Main Street’s, we started by examining adjusted gross income—including capital gains—from the tax returns of each of the two major-party candidates (so no Ross Perot) the year before each election. For the 2008 election, for example, we looked at Barack Obama’s return for 2007. For John McCain and John Kerry, who both married heiresses, we also took into account spousal earnings.
We then used national income estimates from Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez and Paris School of Economics professor Thomas Piketty. These income estimates are based around tax units—which include married couples and people filing singly—and include capital-gains income. For the current election between Mitt Romney and Obama we used 2010 income estimates, the most recent available. All dollar amounts are real and not adjusted for inflation.
Finally, we ranked the candidates by how many times richer each one was while running that the average American. Of the 25 candidates we counted, the seven (counting Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter twice) with the most mundane cash flows were all Democrats, with Michael Dukakis coming closest to the common man, earning just 4.33 times more than the average citizen.
And the least common candidate? Mitt Romney, of course, who despite being “unemployed” in 2011, still took in more than 400 times the average Joe or Jane.
Because releasing tax returns didn’t become the norm until after Watergate, the list covers every major-party candidate going back to 1972, and a few earlier ones going back to 1952. We compiled figures from digital versions of the returns for recent candidates, when available, and from historical press reports when actual returns were unavailable.
—Clark Merrefield and Lauren Streib