We've had a lot of news and commentary over the last couple days about the money chase in presidential politics. The campaigns, pundits and insider-media folks are busy discussing which candidate is ahead, by how much and what it all means for the 2008 race. However, having been intimately involved since the 1984 cycle in presidential politics, my view of this money chase is quite different than most of the conventional wisdom that is out there. At least on the Democratic side, and I would guess the same applies to the Republicans as well, whoever is ahead on money will not matter very much when it comes to picking the nominee. While the lack of money has already driven one good potential candidate out of the race (Vilsack), and may mean trouble for at least one or two more (Biden being in the most danger), the top three Democratic candidates - Clinton, Obama and Edwards - are all going to have plenty of money to compete effectively in the early states. As of now, it also appears likely that Richardson and Dodd will have enough to stay competitive. Assuming that these candidates have enough money for a serious field program in the four early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina) and enough money for a solid amount of TV, radio ads and direct mail, here's why I think having the most money just won't be that big a deal:
1. With 15 candidates on both sides buying up lots of advertising, the candidate with the most money can't buy that many more ads than everybody else: there just won't be enough time available.
2. At the end of the day, small retail-oriented states like Iowa and New Hampshire have voters and caucus-attendees who will expect to get to meet and talk to the candidates. A campaign's ability to have a few more ads, a few more paid phone calls or pieces of mail, and a few more advance people organizing events when the candidates comes into town just doesn't matter very much.
3. In a national primary situation like we have with so many big states going on the same day, so soon after the four early sates, momentum will matter 10 times as much as ad buys in those early sates. Even $100 million dollars spread out over the media markets in CA, NY, FL, PA, NJ, TX, etc. won't buy you enough ads to overcome losing in those first four states, or to beat a candidate who has won all or most of those states and is awash in the positive glow of those early victories. The only way having more money after the first four sates matters is if there is a complete muddle in terms of what happens in those early contests, and recent history indicates that scenario is not likely.
At the end of the day, the Democratic nominee race is going to come down to which candidate comes across to the local voters in the four early states as the most likable, as the most genuine, and the most able to relate to the growing sense of outsider populist anger bubbling up from the grassroots. Campaign operatives should take note of the number of outsider populists who beat insider establishment candidates in the 2006 Democratic primaries, and they should figure out how to relate to that kind of electorate.
Mike Lux is the president of American Family Voices, an issue advocacy group sometimes described as the "free safety" of the progressive movement, and consults for progressive organizations and donors through his consulting firm, Progressive Strategies, L.L.C.