Dialing for Dollars
Forget New Hampshire. The contest for cash is the first real primary
The Iowa caucuses may be nearly 10 months off, but the candidacies of some 2008 White House contenders are all but certain to grind to a halt any day now. Some candidates may actually leave the race; others will be considered too far behind to catch up. By mid-April, the current field of nearly 20 hopefuls could effectively be winnowed down to less than a third of that, with three front-runners in each party hanging on to their leads straight through next January.
It sounds crazy, and many think it is. But it's also likely, because March 31 marks the end of the first fundraising quarter for what is widely anticipated to be the most expensive presidential race ever. "Having a good first quarter is the difference between life and death," says Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who announced late last year that he would forgo an expected presidential run, largely because he felt the fundraising demands were too great. "There's a lot of spin in fundraising, but on March 31st there's a bottom line. You either meet expectations or you don't." And with celebrity candidates like New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton expected to raise as much as $100 million before the first Iowan heads out to caucus, that bottom line will be much higher than in previous contests. Some candidates are expected to unveil war chests of up to $30 million when they report those first-quarter results, in early to mid-April. Thus the first-quarter numbers are, in effect, the first primary of the '08 season, and front-runners with less than $20 million could raise doubts. Second-tier candidates with less than $10 million may be laughed out of the race. Journalists and pundits can hardly wait to call those shots, amplifying the actual financial implications of the first-quarter reports into full-blown conventional wisdom about who's on top-and who's toast.
All of which raises the question of whether the 2008 presidential contest, described as the most wide open of the past 75 years, is so wide open after all. "Below the three front-runner Democrats, you have a sitting governor who was ambassador to the U.N., a 36-year senator who's on the Foreign Relations Committee, and another 26-year senator on Foreign Relations," notes the Campaign Finance Institute's Michael Malbin, referring to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd. "Yet they are being written off as if they are nobodies. In previous cycles, they would have been given a hearing." The money primary has become so costly and high stakes as to raise doubts that an experienced and qualified candidate who lacks celebrity status or vast personal wealth can win his party's nomination.
Sticker shock. The price hikes of recent presidential campaigns have wildly outpaced inflation, with candidates in 2004 spending $718 million, up 300 percent from 1996 (chart, Page 20). Election experts predict the 2008 race will cross the $1 billion mark, partly because of the unique nature of the contest: It's the first without a presidential incumbent or vice presidential "heir apparent" in half a century, ensuring at least several candidates competing for each party's nomination.