By Elvin Lim
Something of a myth of American democracy is that decisions are made in the ballot box by voters on election day. Actually, these outcomes are structured by fundraising efforts by would-be candidates years in advance.
Aspirants to the GOP presidential nomination, now entering the crucial second quarter before election year and on the eve of their formal declarations of candidacies, are now racing for credibility by racing for cash. And those without name recognition, in particular, have to rake in as much as they can before June 30 and the slower summer months begin, so that their second quarter federal disclosure reports do not look so pitiful that their campaigns would end before they even began.
President Barack Obama, for his part, appears on top of his own game. Having quickly declared his candidacy, his campaign manager Jim Messina has already mapped out a plan of getting 400 major donors to raise $350,000 each by the end of the year. By forcing the campaign finance issue so early and so soon on GOP hopefuls, he is already shaping the GOP primary outcome. Even more so than in the typical cycle, Republican primary voters will face pressure to forego a candidate of purer conservative principle with less fund-raising potential such as Rick Santorum in favor of a candidate with more fund-raising potential (or the name-recognition to achieve to same) such as Mitt Romney. Obama’s early campaign kick-off, then, has heightened the GOP’s dilemma between boring but credible candidates, and exciting but unknown candidates — a reason why the party has not already settled on a clear frontrunner the way it had done for every campaign since 1952.
In the House and Senate, both parties understand that elections have to be bought as much as they must be fought. Democrats in both chambers appear to have begun to narrow the “enthusiasm gap” of 2010, and raised a little more money than Republicans in the first quarter of this year in spite of the expectation that donors are typically unenthusiastic in the fundraising cycle which follows their party’s defeat at the polls. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raised $11.69 million, just slightly more than the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee’s figure of $11.2 million. A positive sign for Democrats is that the senators holding important swing seats the GOP hopes to re-capture, such as those of Bill Nelson (FL), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Sherrod Brown (OH), did well by raising over a $1 million each in the first quarter. But this could merely mean that these senators are gearing up for a tough, and perhaps uphill battle ahead.
Democrats fared better in the House as well, but the numbers again are very close. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $19.6 million, compared to the National Republican Campaign Committee, which raised $18 million. The DCCC is taking comfort in the fact that the average freshman Republican congressman raised less in the first quarter of 2011 than the average freshman Democratic congressman did in the first quarters of 2007 and 2009 – the years after the Democrats had just enjoyed their victories. There were, however, clear winners on the Republican side, and topping that list was Michelle Bachmann, who raised over $2 million in the first quarter. The critical question for the year ahead is whether the Tea-Party’s enthusiasm for Bachmann is portable enough to help other Republican members achieve their fund-raising goals. If the Tea Party proves capable of inspiring cheques as well as it has inspired hearts, the Republican party will have no problem keeping the House and gaining in the Senate next year.
For American politics, look not to the polls; for where the money goes, so goes the elections.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.