A model based on the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation is used to study the electrostatic contribution to the binding free energy of a simple intercalating ligand, 3,8-diamino-6-phenylphenanthridine, to DNA. We find that the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann model accurately describes both the absolute magnitude of the pKa shift of 3,8-diamino-6-phenylphenanthridine observed upon intercalation and its variation with bulk salt concentration. Since the pKa shift is directly related to the total electrostatic binding free energy of the charged and neutral forms of the ligand, the accuracy of the calculations implies that the electrostatic contributions to binding are accurately predicted as well. Based on our results, we have developed a general physical description of the electrostatic contribution to ligand-DNA binding in which the electrostatic binding free energy is described as a balance between the coulombic attraction of a ligand to DNA and the disruption of solvent upon binding. Long-range coulombic forces associated with highly charged nucleic acids provide a strong driving force for the interaction of cationic ligands with DNA. These favorable electrostatic interactions are, however, largely compensated for by unfavorable changes in the solvation of both the ligand and the DNA upon binding. The formation of a ligand-DNA complex removes both charged and polar groups at the binding interface from pure solvent while it displaces salt from around the nucleic acid. As a result, the total electrostatic binding free energy is quite small. Consequently, nonpolar interactions, such as tight packing and hydrophobic forces, must play a significant role in ligand-DNA stability.