Twelve years (or three presidential cycles) ago, John Kerry and John Edwards vied to impress the press by raising more than $7 million during the first quarter of 2003.
This time around, Jeb Bush is aiming to rake in $100 million during the first three months of 2015. Or so some anonymous Bush aides claim, though other campaign insiders deny it in the never-ending game of Spin a Tale on the Media. In any case, Bush (the son of one president and the brother of another) is certain to break the $36-million first-quarter record set in 2007 by Hillary Clinton (the wife of a former president).
The finances of the Bush Restoration Movement and the Give Mitt a Third Chance Committee help explain why Republican strategists estimate that any serious candidate for the nomination will need to raise $75 million by the end of February 2016. (These are old-fashioned campaign contributions at $2,700 a throw rather than Super PAC spending). As Dan Balz calculated in the Washington Post, a GOP candidate would have to raise almost $200,000 a day — every day — to hit the $75-million target.
Yes, these are staggering numbers. But what do you expect when a single 2014 Senate race in North Carolina cost more than $100 million? Or that Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown lavished $77 million in direct contributions on their 2012 battle for a Massachusetts Senate seat.
Everyone in politics knows that vast sums in every campaign are wasted. But the engine of inflation in high-stakes campaigns is that nobody is confident that they know which expenditures can be cut without jeopardizing victory. (The financial self-interest of campaign consultants also plays a role in these calculations). As a result, it is a rough rule of thumb that no negative TV ad can go unanswered — no matter what the cost.
These hypothetical $75-million budgets for Republican presidential campaigns are based on being an inescapable presence on TV screens in the opening-gun states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It factors in hiring big-name consultants who will impress both the media and would-be donors. And these budgets presumably set aside funds to build a 50-state infrastructure since candidates who survive the early going in February will likely have to head for Texas for a projected seven-state Southern primary on March 1.
That explains why the media will become enraptured with the $75-million benchmark — rating candidates on how their fund-raising matches the blazing pace likely to be set by Bush and Romney. The candidates who can't keep up will be dogged by the most dismissive compound adjective in politics: “under-funded.”
A crowded Republican primary field — coupled with restrictive newsroom budgets — means that media organizations will have make choices about which candidates are worthy of day-to-day coverage. And the press, which swoons over objective measures like poll ratings and fund-raising totals, will pick its own winners and losers before the first votes are cast in Iowa.
Think about what this means: A candidate's desperate phone calls to the wealthy and pleas to high-rollers at fund-raising dinners will partly be motivated by a desire to be viewed by the media as a top-tier contender. Money, in short, is a ticket to press coverage. It is a great irony of presidential politics that the more money a candidate has for the primaries, the less he needs TV ads to get his name known and his message across.
The problem with the glib media equation that money equals votes is that it is often wrong, especially on the Republican side. In 1980, John Connally lavished $11 million on his presidential campaign (more than $30 million today) and garnered exactly one convention delegate. Phil Gramm in 1996 spent $20 million (more than $30 million today) and corralled eight delegates. Then there were the two spend-the-family-fortune campaigns by Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000. And, oops, I almost forget the flush-with-cash Rick Perry in 2012.
Confession time: I too have prematurely dismissed candidates based on their poll numbers and fund-raising totals. After an August 2011 debate in Iowa, I described Rick Santorum as “purportedly running for president.” In December, I asked Santorum in an interview, “Do you get discouraged?” In January 2012, Santorum (who raised just $2 million in 2011) narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and became Romney's most persistent rival for the nomination.
Insurgents like Santorum, whose campaigns forage for food on a daily basis, are ill prepared to handle success. After he surprised everyone on caucus night in Iowa, Santorum flew to New Hampshire where he addressed a town meeting filled with TV cameras — in a nursing home. With an advance team overwhelmed by the sudden attention, Santorum ended up with mostly outdoor New Hampshire events in freezing temperatures. He finished fifth in the primary.
More than anyone in politics, Howard Dean knows how the myth of Icarus applies to insurgent presidential campaigns. Dean, who pioneered big-time, small-donor Internet fund-raising and upended the 2004 Democratic race with his anti-war fervor, recalled in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, “I found myself reaching back for the fiery applause line that I knew I shouldn't be doing because the crowd, it would just light 'em up. That was fine in the room, but it wasn't fine for the country, who wanted to vote for somebody who looked like a president.”
Of course, Warren Harding looked like a president — and he's mostly remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal. But there is truth to Dean's underlying point that cause-driven candidates are usually too incandescent to win presidential nominations in ordinary years. But there have been exceptions (Barry Goldwater, George McGovern) and the changing 21st century media environment may hold out more hope for insurgent candidates.
There is, in theory, another way to run for president without spending every moment dialing for dollars or ideologically positioning yourself in a way that makes you unelectable in November. And that is to practice a form of Moneyball Politics — which means that candidates would hoard every penny as if they were Scrooge McDuck.
That would mean avoiding big-time consultants and meaningless money-draining spectacles like the Iowa Straw Poll. (Michele Bachmann won in 2011 — enough said). But more than that, a mythical Moneyball contender would try to be the first candidate to use social media to supplant television rather than merely augment it. For some time in 2016 or 2020, a candidate is going to figure out how to use Facebook (or other platforms) to reach most voters with his or her videos, thereby slashing the cost of waging a winning campaign.
None of this will eliminate the thumb-on-the-scales power of Big Money in a Super PAC era. But, at minimum, the political press corps should avoid automatically belittling presidential candidates with serious public records simply because their fund-raising totals are disappointing by conventional standards.
For in politics, sometimes money (even $58 million in 2008) doesn't buy you love. Just ask President Rudy Giuliani.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.