Bring on the Big Bucks

Sarah Palin - AP Jae C Hong - banner.jpg
Sarah Palin speaks at a rally in Anaheim, California in October. credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Many people asked me over the last week whether I would be going to the annual CPAC convocation taking place at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington. I explained that while I have covered the event in the past, I stopped maybe a decade or so ago because most of the people who attend the CPAC meeting are in no way representative of the Republican Party as a whole.

Don't get me wrong; I find it very enjoyable to sit back and watch a rough approximation of a cross section of one party's voters listen to and evaluate their party's potential presidential contenders. Watching their faces and body language, listening to their questions, and probing their reactions are all enormously enlightening. 

But let's face it. Any group that holds a straw poll that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, wins in back-to-back years by definition isn't representative of much of anything beyond maybe the most extreme slice of one party.

Further, this event has been so thoroughly and easily manipulated over the years that it is more an auction than an election. The goal has become which camp can buy up the most tickets and stuff as many college kids or recent graduates into a hall at one time.

A good question might be why so many reporters waste several days going, but the answer is clear: If you cover presidential electoral politics, there is nothing else going on right now.

This isn't a partisan or ideological view. Watching a group of Democratic contenders pander to ACORN (or whatever they are called now) or some other liberal group would also provide little understanding of the 2012 playing field.

I am content to wait until a little later in the year when those who are really intent on running actually start spending a lot of time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Seeing these hopefuls speak before groups of regular voters will be interesting, and there's a little more dignity to the process.

Until that comes, though, a better use of time is to figure out which of these candidates might be able to raise enough money to have a legitimate chance of winning. A sobering figure to consider is that President Obama raised a total of $745.7 million to get elected.

For just the nomination fight, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., raised $223.9 million and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., took in $48.2 million.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain of Arizona raised $219.6 million to win the nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised $105.2 million (including $44.7 million from himself), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani raised $58.7 million, Paul raised $34.5 million, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pulled in $16.1 million.

Even leaving out Obama's eyeball-popping fundraising pace, it seems a good bet that to win the Republican nomination would require raising at least an amount in the broad $200-$300 million range.

Keep in mind that McCain's $219 million fundraising figure includes an extended time when his candidacy appeared dead and was living hand-to-mouth. A knock-down, drag-out fight similar to the Obama-Clinton feud would easily exceed that $300 million estimation, though no one, including the incumbent president, might be able to capture lightning in that fundraising bottle to the extent that he did in 2007-2008.

With the decision by the Republican National Committee to switch to a proportional representation system like Democrats, abandoning the winner-take-all system that all but guaranteed a relatively quick resolution to nomination fights, the odds of a fight on the more expensive side of that range are even higher.

Thinking about these sobering fundraising demands tends to quiet talk about long-shot, late-entry, and outsider candidacies. The fundraising demands mean that a successful candidate would either need to enter the race with nationwide name recognition, at least in their party's donor and activist community, or get a very early start with a team of people who already possess the contacts within that donor and activist community.

These financial demands mean that more attention should be placed on the donor community and what kind of candidates they are looking for. In 2008, Huckabee was a great example of a candidate who unexpectedly won the Iowa Caucus but had virtually no appeal beyond the ranks of social, cultural, and religious conservatives, and the home-schooling community.

As a result, he never was able to diversify his appeal or monetize his Iowa Caucus victory and become a strong force in the nomination fight. Money can't buy you a nomination, but it can certainly deprive you of one.

It also means that there will be a premium on the candidates who can find world-class talent to tap that money--yet another reason why former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is highly unlikely to win the GOP nomination.

You have to be able to attract top-drawer people, delegate responsibility to them, and let them do their jobs--attributes not commonly associated with Palin.

Those factors, along with her extraordinary negatives among independents (read: swing voters necessary to win a general election), make her a faux front-runner in this race. Similar challenges with independent voters and the electability question will likely plague former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., while the financial requirements will be the biggest challenge to Huckabee if he runs.

This means that the fight for the Republican nomination is more wide open than commonly thought, but with the caveat that it will take an enormous amount of money to get through the door.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, February 15, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily. Thumbnail image credit: Cheryl Gerber/Getty Images