Conventional wisdom says that American elections are won by the candidates who can raise the most money. But 2008 just might be the year that disproves that notion, once and for all.
As it stands today, if one had to bet on who the Democratic and Republican nominees for president would be in 2008 - based solely on their fundraising prowess - the savvy gambler would put money on Barack Obama (who thus far has raised nearly $25 million, and could quite possibly continue to out-raise Hillary Clinton) and Mitt Romney (who has raised $21 million to date, and has a fundraising operation unrivaled in the GOP pack) making it onto the top slot of their respective parties' tickets.
But to paraphrase the Beatles, money can't buy you love.
Whereas Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney may be great at attracting the green from, respectively, the netroots and the moneyed party establishment, neither of them is nearly as good at attracting the commitment of would-be voters in major polls — despite all their collective charisma and supposed star power.
The latest NYSunPolitics.com Democratic primary index shows Mr. Obama's support with Democratic primary voters hovering at just above 20%. That's more than 10 points behind Mrs. Clinton. Now, admittedly, Mrs. Clinton has more money in the bank than Mr. Obama — but that's only because of money she was able to transfer from her 2006 Senate re-election campaign (she raised only $19 million against Mr. Obama's $25 million in the first quarter of 2007).
Mr. Obama's 20% support remains on the low side, despite his having spent a great deal of the massive amount he's raised on touring the country to sell his brand to primary voters and having dished out a lot of cash to expensive consultants who have done a fine job of keeping him in the press and on TV virtually every day since last November.
For Mr. Romney's part, the NYSP Republican primary index shows his support with Republicans less than 5% higher than it was six months ago — and still under 10% at that. According to the index, he trails John McCain (who raised only $13 million) by more than 10 points, and Rudy Giuliani (who raised just $14 million) by more than 25 points. Mr. Romney has spent half of the colossal sum he's raised so far, much of it on TV ads already running for several weeks in key primary states, apparently to little avail. He's still in third place in New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to most polls, and he's in fourth place in Iowa — behind Fred Thompson, who's not even in the race (and hasn't, of course, spent a cent).
The examples of Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney seem to suggest that while money helps, it's not the be-all-and-end-all that your Average Cynical Joe might believe.
Of course, it's never been 100% true that whichever candidate has the best fundraising operation automatically wins. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses, Howard Dean had raised more money than any other Democratic contender. Indeed, as early as the second quarter of 2003, Mr. Dean was out-raising John Kerry. Yet Mr. Kerry beat him in the Iowa caucuses — even before Mr. Dean's screaming meltdown.
And, back in 2000, John McCain gave George W. Bush a good run for his money, despite the fact that Mr. Bush's campaign was running on lobster, caviar, and champagne, and Mr. McCain's campaign was famously running on discounted, store-brand macaroni-and-cheese, purchased with food stamps.
Perhaps there's some irony in the fact the Mr. McCain has made a career of claiming that money determines the winner in American politics, but now he'd have to prove himself wrong to pull off an upset in the Republican primary. And perhaps there's some further irony — or at least something wildly unexpected — in the fact that the best-funded candidates this time around are the challengers, not the establishment guys (or, rather, gal, in the case of Mrs. Clinton).
Whatever ends up determining the outcome of this year's primary season, the smart money's not on money.