Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event in Kennesaw, Ga., Dec. 5, 2022.

Photo: Ben Gray/Associated Press

After
Donald Trump’s

federal indictment, he was nice enough to email, “While today is certainly grim and dark, do NOT lose faith! Please make a contribution to peacefully stand with me today and prove that YOU will NEVER surrender our country to the radical Left. CONTRIBUTE $24,” with a link to WinRed.com. The caps give it a Nigerian-prince feel.

It reminded me of a note from a reader: “Donald Trump is in politics for only one reason: money. There is a reason he campaigned for the two GOP senate candidates in Georgia in the January 2021 runoff, when even the WSJ said he should have shut up—he wanted them to lose and the Dems in control so he could energize his base to contribute more. The scenario he wants is to get nominated again for 2024, get lots of contributions, then lose the election so he doesn’t have to deal with politics again.”

I suppose there is some truth to this—Mr. Trump did sell $5 million in Trump digital trading-card NFTs, after all. But purposely losing? Like Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings,” I think Mr. Trump tasted power and wants it back. And to be fair, Mr. Trump reportedly contributed $66 million of his own money in 2016, although the campaign spent $13 million at his businesses. Maybe he is trying to recoup the rest.

Who makes money in elections? I started turning over rocks to find out. There is certainly plenty of money. Some $14 billion was spent during the 2020 elections, almost $6 billion on the presidential race. Another $16 billion was spent on the 2022 midterms. That’s a lot of traditional media and digital advertising. Wanna bet it’s more than $25 billion for 2024?

Campaigns are lucrative.

Barack Obama
paid strategist

David Axelrod’s
firm more than $2 million from 2005 to 2008.

Hillary Clinton’s
campaign paid pollster

Mark Penn’s
firm more than $5 million when she lost the 2008 nomination. Nice work if you can get it. I wonder who she paid in 2016 to tell her not to bother visiting Wisconsin.

Campaigns consist of fundraising, operations and advertising. Big-dollar, big-donor fundraisers charge a standard 10% fee. They do a lot of phone calls and meet-and-greets—I’ve heard it likened to party planning. Much of that money goes to super PACs, with little oversight. Oh, and don’t confuse these fee-generating fundraisers with bundlers, who combine lots of smaller donations and are vying for ambassadorships or future influence.

Forget all that. Small-donor fundraising is the real gusher, with potential million-dollar paydays, thanks to a nearly complete lack of oversight. Fees are often 10% to 20%, but I’ve been told some digital fundraisers have kept 80% or more. And then contributor lists are rented to others. Emails ask for only $7 or $24, and if you click you’re tagged as a sucker and your email is sold to other campaigns.

As far as advertising goes, traditional media such as TV, radio and billboards typically have 8% fees by an agency on the ad buy. Audits are easy for, say, buying 1,000 gross rating points in Chicago, but a $100 million Senate campaign can still be fruitful.

But the real home run is digital advertising. There is almost no transparency, few measures to audit and almost no way for a campaign to know how the ad money was spent. Social-media spending is fast and loose. No one knows how effective it is, let alone how much of the spending goes toward fees vs. actual ads. Ten percent to 80% fees are possible.

I dug up the Federal Election Commission filings for

Herschel Walker’s
2022 Senate campaign, and they are revealing. Full disclosure: In 1984 I saw the Trump-owned USFL New Jersey Generals with Mr. Walker at running back play at the Meadowlands. There were more fights in the stands than touchdowns.

The Walker campaign had more than 1,000 itemized campaign expenses, including $13 to Velvet Elvis, $6 to Burger King and—what’s this?—$199,467 to “The Mar-a-Lago Club.” Here’s the real whopper: Two-thirds of the campaign’s $69 million spending was for digital ad services—$25.5 million to Scott Howell entities; $13.2 million combined to Campaign Solutions and

Connell Donatelli,
which are the same firm; and $8.4 million to Push Digital LLC. Another $1.6 million went to WinRed, the site in Mr. Trump’s fundraising email. Was the money for digital ad buying? How much was spent on fees? Was it for digital fundraising? Consulting? Who knows. It isn’t disclosed. And, may I remind you, Mr. Walker lost.

A clown car of presidential candidates gets filled every four years. Those driving the car are raking it in. While being campaign manager can be a prestige position—or scapegoat if the candidate loses—doling out digital dollars is gold.

Write to kessler@wsj.com.