Does Money Translate Into Votes?

With the Super Tuesday primaries approaching on Feb. 5, we’re also passing the anniversary of the launch of the first primary — the so-called “money primary.”          

It seems a lot longer, but it was just a year ago that candidates were boasting of raising $100 million dollars each and fundraising bundlers were gathering in hotel rooms to get their routing numbers and target amounts.

As the political theory goes, voters cast their first ballot with their checkbook.

That explains why the media and political insiders obsess about early fundraising. National polls reflect name recognition; cash shows real support.       

So it’s worth taking a look at how well the theory has held up and what, if anything, it might say about Super Tuesday, when contests will be held in more than 20 states that also are home to more than 45 percent of presidential donors through the third quarter.       

Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are the only candidates to claim to have raised $100 million each.

The final year-end reports will be released later this week.

But those extraordinary totals, accumulated one record-breaking quarter after another, accurately envisaged the candidates’ toe-to-toe battle for the nomination and unprecedented turnout of voters.   

Republican Mitt Romney probably has spent something close to that, but it’s a good guess now that roughly half of it is his own money — not a reliable measure of public support.

His chief rival, John McCain, of course, spent like he had that kind of money when he didn’t, and his gritty comeback has added authenticity to his tough-love rhetoric.         

Actual results from the early-contest states offer mixed evidence of how well fundraising prowess reflects political strength.

Romney, for instance, was the GOP’s top fundraiser in Iowa through the first nine months of last year, collecting $143,825 from donors there.

But on caucus night, he came in second to Mike Huckabee, who raised just $19,327 in the state.

Conversely, Clinton raised the most from Iowans, $123,038, and Obama trailed with $98,664. He won in the state; she came in third.        

In New Hampshire, the fundraising finalists matched up with the election finalists, but they were flipped. Obama outraised Clinton in the Granite State, but she won and he came in second.

Romney bested McCain in raising New Hampshire cash, but McCain nabbed the primary title and Romney took the “silver.”

As the candidates moved away from the two small early states, where retail politics are premium, the fundraising winners matched the victors.

Romney and Clinton raised more money in Nevada, and both won. In South Carolina, McCain and Obama raised the most cash, and each pocketed a key victory.         

In Florida, Rudy Giuliani’s cherry-picking approach to presidential politics could upend the pattern.         

He has raised the most there, $3.4 million. Romney is second, with $2.6 million, and McCain is third, with $1.6 million. But going into today’s primary, Giuliani is struggling for his first win.         

So, using the fundraising benchmark to look ahead to next Tuesday’s megaprimary, it suggests there could be some surprises, and not a whole lot of clarity, when the dust settles.

I’m going to offer a few caveats, which I’m allowing myself because I’ve crawled out onto this skinny little limb voluntarily.

First, Giuliani’s position is precarious, so I’m going to hedge with him. Also, McCain’s 2007 mdyear donor meltdown could skew some results.

And when we move into states with large numbers of Democratic African-American voters, Obama’s history-making lure could wind up trumping Clinton’s cash.

That said, here goes.

The easy home-state calls come first, and there are a lot of them next week.

Clinton was the top fundraiser in her home state of New York, and that suggests an easy win; the same is true of Obama and his home state of Illinois.

Ditto for Romney in Massachusetts, McCain in Arizona and Giuliani in New York — if he wins Florida and can regain momentum.

Utah, home of many Mormon donors, seems a Romney slam-dunk.

Huckabee, if he’s still in, would take Arkansas, as could Clinton; both raised the most in that state.

The prognosticating gets more interesting once the candidates move farther from home.

Clinton and Romney are the top fundraisers in Colorado; Obama and Romney are the cash leaders in Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee.

Massachusetts and Minnesota — and even California, despite the early polls — could turn into squeakers for Clinton and Obama, who have raised nearly equal amounts of cash from donors in those states. Tight races also are signaled between Romney and McCain in Illinois and Minnesota.

Of course, all of this cash crunching and speculating could collapse like a house of cards. But if not, an amazing thing — something fitting of 2008’s crazy money race — could happen.

Ron Paul is the biggest Republican fundraiser in North Dakota.

Could it be?
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