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Money, money, money

Real numbers, reflecting cold, hard cash, provide welcome relief from the straws in the wind that capture our attention during the “invisible primary” season when so little else is concrete, solid and measurable. In the end, the race is not always to the richest, but the first-quarter filings do illustrate some broader trends within the electorate.

First, voters are deeply engaged in this race. Together, the candidates amassed $130 million — more than four times the amount raised in the comparable period in any previous cycle for which we have records. People give money to presidential campaigns because they care, and voters are clearly invested in the 2008 contest.

Poll data also point to an engaged electorate. Almost a quarter told Pew pollsters that they have already given “a lot” of thought to the presidential candidates; 83 percent say they care “a good deal” about who wins.

Second, the filings reveal Democrats are far more interested, committed and mobilized than Republicans. Writing a check reflects unambiguous commitment, and Democrats have been much more successful at harvesting those checks than Republicans. For the first time since records have been kept, more money has been donated to Democrats than to Republicans, and it is not even close — over 60 percent of the money collected so far has gone to Democratic candidates.

Again, the public opinion data add force to the fundraising totals, painting a portrait of a Democratic base far more activated than are its GOP counterparts. Thirty-eight percent of liberal Democrats report deep engagement with the contest, compared to 24 percent of conservative Republicans.

Third, the fundraising numbers underline Billie Holliday’s trenchant observation — “them that’s got shall get.” Candidates who had already earned substantial fame collected the vast majority of the money. The five candidates who were well-known national figures before January received over 70 percent of the dollars contributed. The other seven divided less than a third of the take. Only one of the relative unknowns reported double-digit results — Mitt Romney took in $23 million despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of voters had never heard of him, suggesting a campaign making the most of its assets.

Fourth, the $130 million in total receipts heralds the emergence of a vast new group of donors. Some 300,000 individuals contributed to the major ’08 Democrats online alone. While precise comparisons are difficult, that is twice the number of individuals who contributed over $200 million to the Bush campaign during the entire 2004 cycle. The Mellman Group and A.B. Data will soon be unveiling a major survey of progressive donors, but the campaign filings suggest a vast new pool of contributors. 

Despite all the focus on the fundraising numbers, though, they may shed less light than we think on the identity of the eventual nominee. While fundraising prowess is one indicator of political strength, historically it is not always dispositive. During the off-year, Howard Dean out-raised John Kerry, while Phil Gramm out-raised all his Republican rivals. Money buys organization and communication, but it cannot substitute for inspiring candidates or compelling stories, nor compensate for errors, out-of-sync messages or flawed strategies.

Only so much can be spent usefully in the early states, and those contests will do a great deal to determine the outcome. In 2008 there may be enough cash left over to spend in the Feb. 5 states, but that spending is unlikely to rescue a candidate who crashes and burns in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada.

Money may not tell the whole tale, but it does reveal some important truths about the shape of next year’s presidential contest.

Mark Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.