Money Changes Everything

Should we feel sorry for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire? There are so many candidates for President running around in those two friendly, mostly rural states begging for money and support that if I were them, I'd lock my door at night just to make sure that they wouldn't show up on my doorstep like some wayward racoon or some other varmint looking for a handout.

An impossible number of would-be presidents are careening around those two states in caravans of mini-vans and busses, hopping like Mexican jumping beans from small town to rural hamlet, staying just long enough to shake a few hands, make a speech to supporters, and perhaps talk to local reporters. And then, the mad dash for the vehicles and it's off they go again - this time for a speech at the local high school (making sure they know the school's name for its athletic teams) and then a few questions from the well meaning, surprisingly intelligent folks, asking just what they were going to do to make their lives better or easier.

This kind of scene can be repeated several times a day. And in between stops, the candidate is working the phones, begging and pleading with supporters for money. Always more money. Without the money, the caravans would screech to a halt, the staff would wander away looking for greener pastures, and the media would move you from the "Active Campaign" column in their ledgers to their "Death Watch" page. The press, being cynical bastards, would probably start a "dead pool" on your campaign, taking bets on the date and even the time of day you will drop out.

Very, very few candidates make it back to the "Active Campaign" status once the press places them in the "Death Watch" column. In this campaign especially, perception rules. And if the campaign is perceived as being on its last legs, the money will dry up. And once the money dries up, when the next FEC reporting period rolls around and it shows you far below expectations for raising cash, the campaign obituary stories will become even more common thus causing more cash problems. Since there really isn't any other barameter the press can use to measure campaign progress this early in the race, the media has latched on to the quarterly FEC reports issued by the candidates as a gauge to determine who's up, who's down, and where the race stands.

And if money truly is the "mother's milk" of American politics, both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama have latched on to a pregnant whale. Obama's $31 million raised for the primary campaign last quarter is a record for American politics as well as for planet earth and perhaps the galaxy. To give you an idea of what a spectacular amount of cash that is, George Bush raised $32 million during the 2000 campaign - in six months. Obama raised as much as Bush in half the time. Clearly, the man has the touch.

Hillary raised $27 million although "only" $18 million of that can be used for the primaries, the rest being reserved for her general election campaign - if she gets that far. Both candidates buried the two GOP frontrunners and the amounts they raised. Rudy Giuliani raised a respectable $17 million while Mitt Romney came in with a cool $14 million. But Romney had to lend his campaign $6.5 million from his own, vast fortune which may presage some money troubles. That amount was also several millions below what Romney had raised in the first quarter thus contributing to the perception that his campaign was struggling.

The biggest hit in either party was absorbed by John McCain who raised only $11 million and has very little cash on hand. This, along with a campaign "re-organization" that involved firing about 50 staffers with others taking pay cuts or being asked to work for nothing has McCain's candidacy in free fall. But does perception in this case match the facts?

Perhaps not. Political junkies may recall John Kerry mortgaging his house in the waning days of 2003 in order to keep his campaign going. So just because a candidate is on the "Death Watch" list doesn't necessarily mean it's over. McCain is waiting for putative candidate Fred Thompson to declare in order to give him a stationary target to swing at. Thompson is billing himself as the conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani but the Arizona Senator, believing himself that alternative, will no doubt try very hard to challenge the former Tennessee Senator's claims by doing some comparing and contrasting of records. And if Thompson stumbles for whatever reason, McCain will still be there, waiting in the wings for conservatives to embrace him.

He may have a very long wait. Senator McCain has burned a lot of bridges to conservatives over the last few years what with his authorship of the McCain-Feingold monstrosity as well as his support for an immigration reform measure many conservatives saw as a betrayal. But there are still a sizable number of conservatives and moderate hawks who find the Senator a compelling figure. His support for the Iraq War has been consistent and admirable from their standpoint. And McCain is banking on that residual good will along with his claim to electability because of his bridge building to Democrats over the years to carry him home.

But there is an almost unreal quality to this campaign season, the longest in American history. This far out from the actual voting, very few Americans are paying attention to all this frantic running around and begging for money. It's all being done for show. And the audience is the national press and that small, devoted cadre of professionals and amateurs who find entertainment in politics and exhibit a passion in following the campaigns. These days, that means that the online communities of political bloggers have become almost as important to a campaign's strategy as how best to manipulate the press. Perhaps not important enough for a front row seat to this show. But there is no doubt that bloggers have emerged from the wings and the standing room section and have been given a seat in the theater.

The candidates flicker across our TV screens but very few of us are paying attention. Nevertheless, our impressions of the candidates are being formed by what we see on television and what we read on the blogs. And the candidates are banking on the fact that as the sands of time run out on this year and turn over to the next, that impression that they have been cultivating for more so many months will pay off in getting your vote.