04/08/2007 12:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Obama's Money Really Means

It may be over before it starts. All the talk of a titanic battle for the Democratic Party presidential nomination may not match the actual contest. That is because Illinois Senator Barack Obama's rocketship ride to the top of America's political consciousness is picking up steam. The reports that he raised $25 million from his official announcement on February 10th through the end of March have sent much of the punditocracy and the bloggerazzi into collective head scratching mode trying to figure out what this means. Is Obama is more than just a good speech, dashing figure, and compelling personal story? What does all this mean for Hilary and the Clinton army? Is it just a two person race? My only wonder is what his money will do to, not for, his candidacy.

Obama definitely opened some eyes with his number. More impressive than the total dollar amount is the total number of donors. His 100k donors means that the number of people who reached the legal limit ("maxed out") is small; amazingly, 90 percent of his donors gave less than $100. The legal limit is $2,300 for the primary campaign, and another $2,300 for the general election, so he can go back to the overwhelming majority of his supporters throughout the campaign. That's a good place to be in politics.

The money also poses a quandary. The large amount of campaign contributions from such a vast range of people allows Obama to speak freely in a way that most other big money candidates can't. The question for me is: Will he use his freedom to speak out forcefully on issues on which most Americans care deeply? Or will he simply play it safe, take few chances, and try to run out the clock to the nomination? The people want the former, but the latter is more the norm for front-runners.

Obama's success is really an expression of public frustration with the political status quo. The current candidates on the Democratic side, many of whom are very well qualified to seek the presidency, all represent different versions of the status quo. Obama's appearance on the political scene offers hope to millions of Americans who seek something new. How else does one explain his rise to the top of American politics? It can't be about what he has done in office, because he hasn't done anything legislatively to warrant the attention he receives. He's not closely associated with one particular policy issue and hasn't established himself as the "go to guy" on anything.

Clinton has to be sick about this. Now, some of her donors are going to give to Obama just to make sure they are on his list in the event that he wins the nomination. That, combined with Obama's ability to go back to the same donors on numerous occasions throughout the year means that he will be able to raise at least $20 million each quarter for the rest of the race. If Hilary doesn't broaden her donor base (she has a much larger number of maxed out donors), then she will be in trouble and the race could be over before the first ballots are cast.