Just a little over ten years ago, then-Senator Phil Gramm impressed the political world by raising over $8 million for his presidential campaign in the first quarter of 1995. Those, apparently, were the cheap old days. In 2007, the price of politics has gone up.
The numbers are still coming in from presidential campaigns on both sides (and we won't know a lot of particulars until all the paperwork is in), but it's clear that when all is said and done, well over $100 million will have been raised in the first three months of this year by all candidates combined. The sheer figures -- $26 million raised in ten weeks by Senator Hillary Clinton for example – are eye-popping but not really all that unexpected.
While everyone is busy analyzing what it means for individual candidates, it's worth keeping in mind the overall political environment for a little perspective. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and campaign 2008 is getting underway amid a perfect storm in many respects.
We all like to complain about the never-ending campaign but events this cycle may keep the nation's attention from fading. America is at war on at least two fronts. The one in Iraq is unpopular by any measure and has largely lost the support of the public. The question is not so much whether to leave but how and when. The other, the one on Terror, has lost much of its definition for many who are unsure exactly who it's being waged against. With so much uncertainty, interest in the presidential race should be high, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
Democrats, fresh off November victories giving them control of Congress, see a path back to the White House and the fundraising successes of their top-tier candidates reflect their party's enthusiasm. Republican candidates, lagging a bit behind, benefit from the void within their own party. Nobody directly representing the current administration is running, leaving a wide-open contest. Both parties are looking for someone to help define politics for the next decade or more.
As a result of this free-for-all, just about anyone who harbors presidential ambitions have had to make early decisions. With large fields in both parties, it has become incumbent upon those with natural advantages (Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards) to do what they can to stay ahead of those looking to break through. It's also important for rising stars (Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani) to prove that they aren't passing fancies. They need to find ways to separate themselves – and fundraising is a crucial area in which to do so.
Adding to all the early crush is the looming specter of what may effectively be a national primary. While it appears small states like New Hampshire and Iowa will still go first, the crush of large states – Florida, California and New York to name some of the biggies – moving their primary contests up means the majority of delegates could be won within just a few weeks of the first votes cast. Early money spent in these states could help cement strong performances there.
Because of the intense interest and competition, the bigger campaigns will need every penny they can find. Part of trying to maintain a top-tier mystique means building a massive infrastructure, complete with high-profile consultants, staffers and organizers. That sort of organization doesn't come cheap and, while it may or may not pay off, it's the price a campaign pays for being a front-runner.
The big winners today have the most to lose during the next three quarters. Setting a bar of $26 million means a campaign must try to keep up that pace lest a $15 million second quarter – strong by most standards – ends up looking like a bust. It's a twist on the old adage, to whom more is given, more is expected.
In 1995, Phil Gramm raised more money than any other Republican and he was out of the race by the New Hampshire primary. Other big-spenders have come and gone just as quickly in campaigns past so we shouldn't get too excited about these current figures. We'll have plenty of chances for hype in the quarters to come.