The importance of money is one of the first lessons of political reporting, taught through frustration and boredom. The media gaggle follows the candidate to the thresholds of fundraising events, only to have the doors slam shut. There’s a lot of time for cooling heels, checking email or learning Mandarin while the business gets done. In the musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr yearns to be “in the room where it happens.” Whatever “it” is seems to involve checkbooks.
And yet, with due respect to the experts, I’d question a recurring theme of 2020 presidential campaign coverage: that the cash pile amassed by President Trump and the Republican National Committee is a major advantage. On the list of factors that will determine the outcome in November, I don’t think money will be in the top 10.
Former vice president Joe Biden and the Democrats finished the first quarter nearly $200 million behind the GOP, a deficit that the New York Times chalked up to “the advantage of incumbency and the ability to fund-raise for the past three years.” The best that could be said for Biden’s April cash haul was that he managed not to fall much further behind.
But while money can be decisive in down-ballot races, where candidates are buying every bit of exposure and interest in their campaigns, there is little evidence that those dollars pick presidents. Consider Mike Bloomberg. The former New York mayor essentially fired greenbacks from confetti cannons in pursuit of the Democratic nomination. Spending an incredible $1 billion on his roughly 100-day campaign — an average of some $10 million a day — proved an exercise in futility. For all the dough he deployed, Bloomberg could not even defeat a fellow former mayor who is still paying off student loans, Pete Buttigieg.
That’s not an isolated case. Biden lagged in fundraising during the primaries, too — yet he is the nominee-in-waiting. In 2016, Hillary Clinton outspent then-candidate Trump by almost 2 to 1. The last presidential campaign in which money arguably delivered a knock-out blow was 20 years ago. George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, deployed an army of “Pioneers” to vacuum up big contributions and scare away possible rivals. Even then, it was impossible to separate the power of the cash from the weight of the Bush family name.
As far back as 1980, John Connally of Texas — a good-looking fellow with a résumé as long as your arm — spent what was at the time a mountain of money, $12 million, on a campaign that won exactly one delegate.
In the battle of Biden vs. Trump, money may be less important than ever. Biden’s task of defining and attacking Trump is already done; much of it, the president has done to himself. It’s difficult to imagine a voter in America who is not thoroughly familiar with the subject, and data suggest that most people settled on their conclusions some time ago and aren’t budging. Biden is less familiar but only by comparison to the most-watched person in the world. He will have plenty of money to do all the advertising he needs.
Meanwhile, the relatively small map of target states and the pandemic’s limitations on travel will further reduce campaign costs. So why do we hear so much about money?
Three reasons: First, political reporters need data to give seeming substance to horse-race stories. Are the candidates succeeding or failing? Polls serve this purpose, but dollars in the bank are even more tangible. Money is a hard fact in a sea of speculation and spin.
Second, insiders take cues from candidate bank accounts. Money equals momentum.
The third reason is probably the most important. The more money a candidate raises, the more that gets spent on producing ads, placing ads, targeting ads and polling to see how the ads are doing. Many of the senior figures around major presidential candidates are involved in businesses that perform those self-same tasks. To supporters, the campaign is a cause; to some top advisers, it is also a gold mine.
There’s a ton of money to be made in presidential campaigns. Just ask Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale — if you can flag down his Ferrari.
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