The Money Primary

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Some of the thoughtful commenters to my earlier posting about the Kerry donors rushing to Obama have asked for a further discussion about the role of money in the 2008 presidential race, and why we in the media cover it so closely. The simple fact is, it matters more than it ever has, for reasons–mostly, a fast and brutal calendar–that I wrote about in this week’s cover story. (Pardon the self-reference here, but we’re in the multi-platform business these days at Time.) Does that produce the best possible candidates? Probably not. Does it mean we in the media don’t have a responsibility to keep an eye out for some underfunded candidate out there who might be catching fire with voters? Definitely not. If you’re seeing something that I’m not, please let me know.

Thanks in large part to the democratizing force of the internet, it’s still conceivable that a candidate could come into the race late with little money and catch fire–but it’s more likely to be someone who already has stature and a following, someone like an Al Gore on the Democratic side or a Newt Gingrich on the Republican. At this point, I wouldn’t bet on it. Most candidates don’t have the luxury of waiting until they have their message clearly defined to get into the chase. That’s another of the consequences that come from an otherwise reasonable move to give more states a voice in those crucial early months of primaries and caucuses.

Then again, money alone is not enough–as Presidents John Connally and Phil Gramm could attest. Or Howard Dean, who set all kinds of records at fundraising in the early rounds of the 2004 election, only to see his campaign operation come crashing down around him in Iowa.

It’s also important to remember, as campaign consultant Mike Murphy pointed out in my story for the magazine, that a lot of this stuff in the early going is kabuki. (Don’t miss his anecdote about hanging a map behind his desk with randomly inserted stickpins.) How they spend their money is, in some ways, as important a measure as how much they raise.