Thursday, April 12, 2007

What Does Presidential Fundraising Mean at This Early Stage?

By Stuart Rothenberg

With all of the hubbub about the first-quarter fundraising numbers, there has been remarkably little attention to what those numbers mean, aside from the usual sports and classroom analogies about where each campaign “finished.”

“The winners of the first presidential fund-raising race are Mitt Romney and the Democratic Party,” wrote Bloomberg News shortly after the first flurry of first-quarter fundraising announcements.

Wrong. Fundraising is only part of the 2008 presidential campaign, and viewing fundraising as a track meet, where the winner is the person who raises the most money, is misleading and undeniably wrong.

In a recent column, a journalist friend of mine wisely avoided the track metaphor but unfortunately decided to “grade” campaigns on a kind of expectations curve.

He gave New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) a B for raising $6 million, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) a C for raising $1.9 million (about a quarter of which was transferred from his Senate account) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a D for raising $12.5 million.

That may be the way they grade at some of America’s supposedly prestigious universities, but if I had graded that way when I was teaching political science, I could have counted on dozens of complaints each semester from students who, quite reasonably, would have argued that grades should reflect a certain standard of performance, not my expectations.

If a student writes a B paper, he deserves a B, even if he probably should have been able to write an A paper. Unfortunately, giving Brownback a C and McCain a D says more about the person setting the expectations than about the candidates’ fundraising.

The first-quarter fundraising numbers certainly don’t mean that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is now the frontrunner for the Republican nomination or that McCain ought to pack it in. Nor do they mean that none of the second-tier candidates in either race has a chance of catching fire sometime over the next nine months.

The fundraising figures measure only the campaigns’ initial fundraising strength, which may or may not reflect anything about the candidates’ appeal in Iowa, New Hampshire and everywhere else on the campaign trail. It is simply too early to know.

Those numbers certainly had no predictive value in 1995, when Texas Republican Phil Gramm led the GOP fundraising pack in the first quarter of the year, only to flop as a candidate once voters actually met and evaluated him.

That’s not to say the numbers are irrelevant. They reflect, at least to some extent, each candidate’s contacts, fundraising organization and name recognition. And they often both reflect and contribute to the conventional wisdom about who is a serious contender in the contest.

What’s critical is not who has the most money, but who has “enough” to put together strong ground games, as well as the necessary media, in Iowa, New Hampshire and, possibly, Nevada and South Carolina.

If you don’t have enough money to impress voters and reporters, you aren’t going to be treated as a serious candidate. That means you won’t be able to raise money or get the amount of “earned media” that you need to pump life into your campaign. But ultimately, the race for the two nominations is not some arbitrary media game about expectations. It’s about getting the support of caucus attendees and primary voters.

Looking at first-quarter fundraising this way, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) and McCain seem to have crossed the financial threshold.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who raised $9 million, and Richardson, who raised $6 million, may well have “enough” cash at the end of the year to compete in a number of the early key states, though each likely will have to rely on a slingshot scenario of performing surprisingly well in Iowa to help them raise cash for the Feb. 5 contests, if the Democratic nomination still is up for grabs then.

For the rest of the field, money remains a problem and in most cases a big question mark. If one of the longer-shot hopefuls can stand out, he may have a chance to boost fundraising during the second or third quarter, enhancing his chances of being a serious competitor in the early tests.

For McCain, his first-quarter showing undoubtedly eliminated any last impressions of the “inevitability” of his nomination, an important quality that he probably had six months or a year ago. That doesn’t mean he won’t be nominated, only that his campaign can’t rely on that impression to line up supporters and raise future dollars.

Is it fair to call McCain’s numbers disappointing? Absolutely. I’m not suggesting that expectations are irrelevant, or that they won’t affect his campaign or how it is treated. But let’s not forget that, when it comes to campaign cash, it’s all about sufficiency, not who “wins” an imaginary money primary.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 9, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.