The Money Primary

By Susan Estrich

April 3, 2007 6 min read

Hillary is on top. Or is she?

Romney wins. McCain loses.

The votes are being counted. Vote early, vote often. Bring your checkbook. All it takes is money. The more you have, the more votes you get.

This is the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, and it's not for the faint of wallet. The money primary matters for two reasons.

First, of course, because money matters, and while having it is no guarantee of success (think Phil Gramm of Texas, whose presidential campaign you may have forgotten, since it didn't get past Iowa, but who broke fund-raising records; or former Texas Governor John Connelly, who did the same), not having it almost always produces failure.

Second, money matters because the talkers use it as a measure of political strength, which it therefore becomes. So not only does not raising enough deprive you of the advantages money could buy, but it also brands you as a loser, leaving you in even worse shape, with even less ability to raise more.

It's easy to argue that money plays too big a role in defining the race for the presidency. Why should the fact that a few thousand rich people do — or don't — support a given candidate determine whether he is in the "first tier," when millions more have yet to make up their minds? The very idea of a poll tax on the privilege of voting offends our sensibilities. We would not think of restricting the franchise to landowners or professionals. The money primary is, in practice, even more elitist. Oh sure, everybody brags about their small donors, but the bulk of the money continues to come in the form of the largest checks, and bragging rights generally go to the candidate with the most rich friends. Small "d" democratic it isn't.

But it's the way things are.

Which is why Mitt Romney, who has been going absolutely nowhere in terms of public support, was this week's "winner" on the Republican side and John McCain, who still runs way ahead of Romney, was the "loser." Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and business consultant who is running a distant third in most Republican polls, easily outstripped both of the frontrunners, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, in first-quarter fund raising.

Rudy's excuse is that his campaign is just getting off the ground, but no similar excuse will work for John McCain, who has been running for years. Nor does it fly for him to say that, in Republican terms, he is running an anti-establishment campaign, as he did in 2000. The problem is that McCain has been spending much of his time since then wooing the establishment at the expense of his reputation for independence, and the process seems to have cost him more than he's collected. He is no longer considered the straight talker he once was, and he doesn't even have the cash to show for it. Talk about the worst of both worlds. Selling out and getting nothing is the definition of a bad deal in politics.

The fact that Mitt Romney can raise more money than his Republican opponents doesn't necessarily mean he's more electable. Being Mormon may actually benefit Romney's fund-raising efforts because of the natural affinity and pride that community would feel toward its first possible president. But overall, with as many as 30 percent of voters saying they wouldn't vote for a Mormon, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that his religion is a positive factor in Romney's candidacy. Similarly, the fact that Romney is from Massachusetts, a state with a long tradition of supporting its politicians, hardly makes being from the Bay State an electoral advantage for the former governor, particularly in a Republican primary.

But none of that matters in the money primary. You can still win, even if it guarantees nothing.

And more importantly, you can lose, which carries consequences. The guy who's hurting this week is McCain, not because he's running out of money, but because the widely shared perception that he didn't do as well as he could have or should have contributes to the assessment that his campaign is in trouble. That assessment, in turn, makes it more difficult to collect from other big donors. Whatever the reason for the shortfall, it becomes a sign of a campaign in disarray.

On the Democratic side, there's little doubt that it's another good week for Hillary. Cleverly, her side got her numbers out first and sold the press on the highest figure possible — $36 million — which represents both primary and general election fund raising, as well as the money raised for the presidential campaign and the $10 million she had left over in the Senate account. How much she actually raised this quarter for the presidential primary contest and how much she has remaining on hand are two numbers the Clinton campaign has yet to disclose. But they're sure to be less impressive than the image of a $36 million juggernaut.

And that is why Obama will get a positive hit this week when he reveals just how much the 80,000-plus donors — Hillary had 50,000 — who gave to his campaign actually contributed. The bottom line on the Democratic side is likely to be that both Hillary and Obama have formidable war chests, while Edwards has "enough" — there really is no such thing as enough — and the remaining candidates are lagging.

Of course they are. They're in the second tier, and there is no way to get out of it in the short run unless you raise as much as a first-tier candidate, which is almost impossible to do when you're in the second tier. Self-fulfilling prophecies in action. The money primary is nothing if not predictable, but that doesn't make it any less important.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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