We're in the Money

In their presidential campaign coverage, the media have spoken: Raise gobs of money, or die.

There they go again—those money-grubbing presidential candidates chasing dollars instead of solutions to our problems. This is exactly the kind of behavior that journalists have been railing against for decades, on the not-totally-insane theory that when politics is all about money, that's a kind of corruption. Remember when it took just three little words, "campaign finance reform," to get a newsperson's heart beating?

That's so five years ago, so John McCain. (What a loser, didn't break $13 million.) Now that the 2008 campaign is on, political money is sexy again. And the new magic phrase is "the money primary," as we saw this week when the same news outlets that have reported ad infinitum on the evils of money in politics told us exactly which '08 candidates we should take seriously: The ones who have pulled in the most evil—oops, I mean the most cash.

Until this week, Mitt Romney was little more than a curiosity, a newcomer with an anchorman chin and a religion asterisk next to his name. Then he opened his wallet and showed what he really had going for him—more than $20 million in first-quarter donations. Media reaction: Hey, Mitt, you're looking pretty darned presidential!

Romney's campaign "burst into full glory after just three months," the Associated Press poetically noted (in political journalism, money is a muse). The Wall Street Journal reported that Romney "earned a second and deeper look at his candidacy by reporting yesterday that he raised nearly $21 million this year, to lead his party's pack in first-quarter fundraising."

So it went all over the news media, as the first-quarter totals were sliced and diced into such breathless headlines as "Romney War Chest Smokes GOP Rivals" (Chicago Sun-Times online) and "Obama's Fundraising Blows Past Speculators' Estimates" (Wired News).

Many such stories include a disclaimer that successful fundraising does not a president make (Howard Dean and Phil Gramm are the standard object lessons), but it tends to be lodged deep in the folds of the who's-on-top narrative.

Obviously, fundraising matters hugely in politics, and the media should cover it in minute detail. But there is a difference between reporting on the money and treating it as the validator—or invalidator—of candidacies. By using campaign money to cull winners from losers, the newsrooms of America effectively make a contribution to the front-runners. After all, what each candidate needs most at this early stage is the impression that he or she is a serious player who has momentum. Thus, the drumbeat we've seen this week about Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and Romney is the equivalent of a really generous check from a fat cat.

Why do the media celebrate the money?

1. Nothing better to do. The campaign "season" is not just a season anymore—it lasts for years. And much of the time, especially early on, there isn't a lot to report. Talking about fundraising numbers is a handy way to look busy while filling the empty space next to the ads.

2. Numerology. Politics is a squishy beat, long on abstraction and short on hard facts. Like poll results, cash can be quantified, which gives it a pseudo-scientific aura and an automatic news peg.

3. Anyone can play. Comparing Clinton's take on the war to Obama's is complicated and challenging, like playing chess. Ranking their fundraising totals is simple and fun, like Sudoku.

4. Kingmaking. Fundraising does not just help candidates win elections. It's also a source of media power—an anvil that journalists dangle over the heads of the campaigns. "As we approach March 31, when campaigns have to file their quarterly fundraising reports, the press and pundits start to obsess over the chase for money," Obama said in a e-mail to potential donors, quoted last week by The New York Times. He added: "I'm asking you to stand up and be counted—will you make a donation now?"

In other words, the candidates are just following orders. The media have spoken: Raise gobs of money, or die.