Historical Perspective on Second-Quarter Fundraising Numbers

by Stuart Rothenberg July 12, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

I can’t understand why so many political observers, including those who do observing for a living, seem to ignore history, even recent history, as they offer quick analysis and assessments of presidential candidate fundraising numbers.

One political blogger recently cited Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) impressive second-quarter fundraising numbers (including his number of contributors) and asserted, “we need to figure out why the ‘national’ frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), isn’t generating as much excitement as her chief competitor.”

Has everyone simply decided to forget 2003-2004? Is there someone out there who really thinks second-quarter fundraising numbers — or even third-quarter numbers — have a great predictive value in guessing which candidates will win the presidential nomination?

Second-quarter presidential fundraising in 2003 showed Howard Dean hauling in $7.6 million, besting Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) $5.9 million, then-Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) $4.5 million and Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) $3.8 million.

True, Kerry held a cash-on-hand advantage ($10.8 million to Edwards’ $8.1 million and Dean’s $6.4 million), but by the end of the third quarter that too would disappear, as the once and future Democratic favorite was easily overtaken by the surging Dean.

In the third quarter of 2003, just a bit more than three months before the actual delegate selection process was to begin in Iowa, Dean ($14.8 million) raised more money than Kerry ($4 million), Gephardt ($3.8 million), Edwards ($2.1 million) and Gen. Wesley Clark ($3.5 million) combined.

And in the last quarter of 2003, just days before Iowa, Dean outraised Kerry $14 million to $2.5 million. If those fundraising numbers also reflected excitement, then the Democratic race should have been over, with Dean coronated in Iowa, New Hampshire and, ultimately, in Boston, and Kerry kicked to the political curb even before the first caucuses.

That’s right. Even fourth-quarter fundraising numbers in 2003 proved to be a lousy indicator of who would win in Iowa and who would win the Democratic nomination.

But back to the question we all apparently are expected to answer: Why isn’t Clinton generating as much excitement as Obama?

This is a difficult question? He’s generating excitement because he is a fresh face; he’s got a great smile; he’s a poised, smart, articulate, personally appealing African-American in a political party that would love to make a statement about equality, opportunity and diversity. He’s playing to the hopes and dreams of Democrats, and he never has to apologize for Iraq. That’s why.

But as for measuring excitement, is excitement six months before the first caucus suddenly the standard we are now expected to use to figure out who will win the Democratic nomination? If it were, then Bill Bradley would have been nominated in 2000 and Dean would have been the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004. Neither happened.

And second, is candidate strength or “excitement” measured primarily by cash receipts or number of donors? Fundraising was a poor predictor in 2004 for the Democrats, and a late June CBS News poll found more Democratic primary voters “enthusiastic” about Clinton (28 percent) than about Obama (22 percent).

It’s true that Clinton raised “only” $21 million in primary funds compared with Obama’s $31 million. But all that means is both candidates will have enough resources to mount top-shelf campaigns in the early caucus and primary states.

It’s amusing that many of those who write about the race noted with apparent approval that Edwards “met” his $9 million goal for the quarter at the same time that they were pronouncing Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) quarter a “disappointment” because he raised only $11 million. But then again, they did the same thing when the first-quarter numbers came out.

Second-quarter fundraising numbers haven’t done anything to clarify the GOP contest.

Yes, McCain’s fundraising is far weaker than expected, and his $2 million in the bank is both a problem and a reflection of his surprisingly limited appeal to Republican givers. But it isn’t as if anyone is blowing the rest of the field away with cash, and this is still a field where everyone has appeal and everyone also has big liabilities.

You know a race is up for grabs when the hottest candidate is a guy who isn’t in the race.

Anyway, where do the races now stand?

Clinton and Obama constitute the Democrats’ top tier, with Edwards still worth watching and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson showing a spark. Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.) are serious people, which means they deserve serious attention.

On the GOP side, McCain seems to have fallen back to about where Edwards is now, worth monitoring but definitely a step behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the noncandidacy of former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.). Thompson has been doing so well as a noncandidate that he just might consider never entering the race officially, or at least until after he wraps up the Republican nomination.

But much of this is of little importance. Frankly, I’ve had enough of arbitrary expectations, including my own. The voters of Iowa — or at least those who participate in the caucuses — will decide who’s real and who isn’t.