End the Money Primary

It was not that long ago when no one cared how much money a candidate did or did not raise more than a year before the election. That was because a year before an election it was still possible to feign disinterest in higher office, suddenly feel a higher calling, spend some weeks touring Iowa and New Hampshire in a campaign bus and still win a party’s presidential ticket.

Today, even though our next national election is more than a year and a half away the press is all agog over the first returns from the so-called Money Primary. This week declared candidates began releasing their FEC reports showing how much money they raised in the first quarter of the year. Perhaps because the press have nothing better to do, even though there is still a bloody civil war going on in Iraq, they have become obsessed with how much money announced presidential candidates have collected this far out. Hillary Clinton reports an obscene $35M raised, although $10M was transferred from the coffers of her overstuffed 2006 Senatorial reelection campaign. More surprising though is that Barack Obama, the articulate and photogenic African American junior senator from Illinois matched her $25M. On the Republican side, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, whom even most Republicans would say “Who?” led the pack with $20M in campaign contributions. The press now sees him as hot stuff.

All this money and not a single vote has been cast, or will be cast until next January. One thing is for sure: winners of the Money Primary will have huge amounts of money at their disposal to saturate the airwaves and newspapers in early states. Will all this money buy them the votes they are looking for? Perhaps not. By the end of December 2003, my preferred candidate Howard Dean had amassed a then stunning $41M war chest. He was considered unbeatable. Yet he failed to win a single primary. As I learned in a painful way, having a small but fervent crowd of supporters willing to keep sending in donations was no guarantee that the rest of my party members would come to share my views.

My guess is that in the 2008 campaign that money will matter much more. This is because the Democratic Party and the State of California in particular have changed the rules. So that their state can get disproportionate national influence, states seem to be on a contest to see which of them will vote earliest for party nominees. Democrats in Nevada will caucus on January 19th, only five days after the Iowa caucus. South Carolina will hold its Democratic primary a week after New Hampshire, on January 29th. Perhaps most egregiously, California passed a law requiring its primary be moved to Super Tuesday on February 5th. Until now, none of the Super Tuesday states were large and populous states. As the most populous state in the country, California voters will likely be a deciding factor on who will be nominated by their party. To win California, the only effective outlet for a candidate will be their airwaves, and that will require them to have a large bank account.

Should I care about these trends? Probably not, but I do. Maybe I am a stuffy traditionalist, but I liked having Iowa and New Hampshire leading the pack. Both states have relatively small populations. This allowed voters to have plenty of opportunities to check out candidates in person. In short, it was possible for voters in these states to develop informed opinions and get personal feedback from candidates. Now, with the shuffling of the primary calendars, caucuses and primaries are more likely to be won based on which candidate does the best marketing and buys the most TV and radio time. Expect fewer debates between candidates and for them to spend less time in any particular state. In fact, to compete they will have to spend even more time fundraising, and less time pressing the flesh with us average voters.

I am not suggesting that Iowa and New Hampshire should always be the first states to vote for nominees. However, I do think that there is a lot of merit to having candidates get to know a state and its issues in detail. What we can now expect is more drive by campaigning consisting of large and boisterous staged events, rather than forums in small town halls and diners where people can interact directly with candidates.

Perhaps this is democracy in action, but I do not like it. I see zero correlation between the worth of a candidate and his or her ability to raise money. I do not want a president that excels in fund raising. I want a president that I feel is in tune with the issues that truly matter to the average person. Time spent by candidates in small town halls and knocking on doors is not at all wasted. Not only does it give a chance for voters to get to know candidates, but much more importantly, it also forces candidates to interact one on one with ordinary people. It helps ground them as a candidate. Raising money at rubber chicken dinners surrounded by partisans may make a candidate feel good. However, these events tend to surround candidates with people who think and act a lot like them. They are not a representative sample of voters.

If I had the power to redesign the primary schedule, primaries would occur later rather than sooner. In recent years, we generally knew who would win a party’s nomination by the end of February, or by early March at the latest. No office, not even the presidency of the United States should be so damned important that it requires hundreds of millions of dollars to be bankrolled long before a vote is taken. Nor should those candidates with more money have a disproportionate advantage. It should be possible to win a nomination the way Jimmy Carter did: by using shoe leather rather than media consultants. The Money Primary demonstrates a candidate’s ability to convince others to give him or her money to run for office. It says zero about their qualifications or ability to be an effective president. In fact, it helps obscure these very points.

I would like to see a law that prohibits any candidate for announcing that they are running for a national office until a year before the election. It would also prohibit people from providing campaign contributions or for a candidate from hiring or paying any staff until the candidacy is official. In addition, it would prohibit a candidate from dipping into their previous campaign coffers to fund a subsequent election. These ideas, along with staggering the dates of state primaries and caucuses on a rotating basis would do a lot to even the playing field for candidates while also allowing the best candidates to emerge, rather than the best-marketed ones.

One thought on “End the Money Primary

  1. I agree in general that primary campaigns begin too early, and that it should not take hundreds of millions to be elected. But I think that this year, the amount of money contributed to Democratic candidates, and particularly to Obama, and the early interest in the campaign, is a direct result of a very frustrated populace and electorate. We have watched nearly every important international relations value our country stands for, from the principle that the U.S. should not start wars, to the principle that the U.S. does not torture, nor support torture, to the principle that the right of habeas corpus is the most fundamental right of all, a right belonging to every human being, and not just a “citizen’s right”, to the 4th Amendment principle that the government must get a warrant before violating the privacy of its citizens, all fall to dust. This is the most important election there has ever been since I was born in 1952. Many things that our government, led for 7 years by the Republican party, has done and is doing, are the things that I was taught as a child in the 1950’s were what “the Communists” did, and were the reasons we had to fight communism. The reason people are donating huge amounts to Democrats, and hankering to vote now, is that many believe that the direction of the country absolutely must change. I am 55 years old, and have never given money to candidates until the 2004 election. This year I have contributed twice to Obama, and I will do so again. Never underestimate the intelligence of the American people, or the power of a (finally) aroused and angry electorate.

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