Money isn’t everything

Some years ago, the late Lyn Nofziger took a call from an old friend who was at the time running for statewide office in California. His race wasn’t going all that well and he needed help. He wanted Lyn to help him by pitching in to raise more money so that he could buy more television time in the Golden State’s expensive media markets.

Lyn was always honest with his friends and he minced no words. “You know,” he said, “when the voters who see you on television come away prepared to vote for your opponent, buying still more ads may not be the answer.” His friend went elsewhere for help, raised the money he was convinced would make the difference … and lost.

Lyn had been around a long time and knew that while money is very important in politics, it isn’t everything. We used to joke that if money were the answer, Nelson Rockefeller would have been nominated over Barry Goldwater in 1964 and elected president four years later. Rockefeller had the money, but it was never sufficient to buy the political support needed to win his own party’s presidential nomination, let alone the White House.

What Lyn’s friend couldn’t grasp is that the message comes first or no one will listen, regardless of how much you are willing to spend. In recent years abortion-rights advocates have consistently outspent pro-life groups, but don’t have their clout on Election Day. In the 2000 presidential race, in which former President Bill Clinton claimed the National Rifle
Association’s hostility cost Al Gore five states and the presidency, gun-control advocates outspent the NRA by a substantial margin. The problem wasn’t that these groups were outspent, but that their message simply didn’t resonate with American voters.

These are things one ought to keep in mind when listening to analysts, consultants and pundits rank presidential wannabes primarily on how much money they have or seem capable of raising. As in past cycles, much of the early coverage focuses not on what the candidates are saying, but on their relative ability to corral fundraisers with a track record and success at rounding up money to spend once the primary season begins.

The common wisdom a year or so ago was that anyone who wanted to be taken seriously as 2008 approached had to be capable of raising $100 million before the Iowa caucus. Among Democrats, this meant that Hillary Clinton was seen as having a virtual lock on her party’s nomination for the simple reason that no challenger could conceivably raise the kind of money available to her through the network she and her husband have put together and nurtured over the years.

On the Republican side, it has been assumed that John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are the contenders who count because they alone have demonstrated an ability to raise the funds it is thought will be needed to wage a viable campaign for the nomination. Romney, in fact, has been listed among the major contenders from the beginning based almost exclusively on his fundraising ability — until very recently, he wasn’t attracting much support from GOP primary voters.

Indeed, based on their collective performance so far, each of these so-called front-runners could spend his or her money and end up just where they are now, proving once again that important as it may be, money isn’t everything.

The problem each of these candidates must contend with is not finance-related. Each can and has made a case that he hopes will attract enough support to win the nomination, but thus far none of them have been able to come close to closing the sale. In fact, the more Republican base voters hear each of these candidates, the more convinced they seem to be that there has to be a more attractive alternative out there.

This yearning for someone with an appealing message explains the hopeful way in which rumors of former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (Tenn.) prospective candidacy have been greeted. Republican voters know he’s not Mitt, Rudy or John, and for that reason alone find him intriguing. He knows that if voters don’t see what they’re looking for in the first three candidates, someone with less money and a more attractive message might ultimately — and handily — beat them all.

The money myth also explains the hopeful way today’s secondary candidates look at the race. Credible former governors like Jim Gilmore (Va.), Tommy Thompson (Wis.) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.) are, like Thompson, betting that in the end today’s front-runners will convince Republican voters to look elsewhere for their candidate.

It may not be a bad bet.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com .