Winning the Money Primary: More Vital Than Ever

SHARE

It's startling, in a way, that a relatively unknown former governor of Massachusetts can raise $21 million in three months for a fledgling presidential campaign. Or that Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is very well known, can raise $26 million–and then transfer another $10 million from her Senate campaign bank account, for a grand total of $36 million to spend. Think of it this way: Clinton has already raised $5 million more than the amount raised by all Democrats put together at this time in 2004. Whew.

Welcome to the nation's first billion-dollar presidential campaign. Never mind where the candidates stand on the issues. This is the money primary–and it's about who stands on top of the biggest pile of dough. These days, a presidential candidate is just a commodity ... and the price goes up if expectations are met; it goes down if they're not.

So it's no surprise that these early results are being taken seriously by the campaigns. Hillary, as expected, was No. 1 on the Democratic side. And we're all still waiting for Barack Obama's numbers, due out later this week. Word on the political street is that he held off announcing his total because he could actually beat Hillary, or get very, very close. Over the weekend, as the reporting deadline approached, his campaign had about 5,000 fundraising parties around the country.

The biggest loser in all of this so far is John McCain. He raised $12.5 million; Rudy Giuliani raised $15 million. Both are far behind Romney, even though Giuliani is leading in the polls and McCain was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination just months ago. I spoke with a top McCain campaign adviser today who admits to being disappointed, and says the campaign is rejiggering its fundraising staff, and fast. McCain wasn't real active in the winter raising money, and it shows. Members of his staff say the results are a reflection of that–and not a reflection of sagging interest in his campaign. They say they have the largest number of donors–although they haven't raised the largest amount. And they know they need a strong showing next quarter.

It may be 20 months before the election, but money really matters now. It's a wide-open field, and money will help to distinguish the candidates. And, if there are large states–like California–participating in early primaries after Iowa and New Hampshire, money will be key. Sure, it's about ideas. But if you want to get them heard, raise the cash now.