Now that we’ve seen the first quarter fundraising totals from the major presidential contenders in both parties, what should we make of them? While nothing definitive can really be derived from these early numbers (see Phil Gramm in 1995 and John Edwards in 2003), we can discern some early patterns starting to take shape and can draw some reasonable conclusions.
First, Hillary Clinton is not invincible, nor is her nomination inevitable. Any hopes that she had of dispatching Barack Obama early have gone up in smoke with the news that he raised nearly as much money as she in the first quarter of this year. It’s almost without a doubt now that Clinton will have to fight for this nomination to the bitter end. The fundraising prowess she displayed in raising $26 million is certainly impressive, but Obama’s (in raising $25 million) is even more so. That’s because he got his contributions from far more donors than did Clinton, although she is obviously more well-connected.
Second, Mitt Romney has turned out to be a much better fundraiser than his early poll numbers indicated. He raised all of that money despite the fact that he has been running third or fourth in most state and national polls of Republican voters. Most of us expected him to turn in some solid numbers for the first quarter, but $23 million? Who would have guessed that? The downside for him will be that his expectations will now be raised and the pressure will be on him to translate that cash into a better showing in the polls. If he can’t, look for his cash flow to start slowing down before the end of the second quarter.
Third, it has to be a little disappointing for Rudy Giuliani to finish so far behind Romney in the first quarter money chase. I fully expected him to lead the way among the GOP contenders. I thought his lofty polls numbers would have translated into bigger bucks. He seems to have found himself in the opposite situation of that of Romney. However, $15 million is nothing to sneeze at and he did get off to a slow start and ended up raising two-thirds of his quarterly total during March. He will need to carry this late momentum into the second quarter and put some big numbers on the board — at least some that are worthy of his poll numbers.
Fourth, John McCain could be in serious trouble (i.e., he could fall out of the top tier) if he doesn’t improve his lagging fundraising figures by the end of the second quarter. He can say all he wants about having not asked for money often enough during the first quarter, but the numbers don’t lie. He has been running a disappointing second to Giuliani in the polls for the last three months. His third place finish in the first quarter fundraising sweepstakes just fuels even more doubts about his ability to capture the nomination, after having been the early frontrunner. He obviously realizes this, as he has already started to make some personnel changes within his campaign staff.
Fifth, John Edwards is still a viable threat to capture the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination and remains in the top tier. The $14 million he raised was quite impressive and will keep him in the thick of things indefinitely, despite his wife’s health problems. On the popular TV game show Jeopardy!, when the second-place contestant can keep the first-place contestant from making the game a runaway, it leaves an opening for the third-place contestant. The same is true here: Obama has kept Clinton from running away from the pack, which in turn keeps Edwards in the game. In addition, the announcement of Edwards’ fundraising totals came at the same time that his poll numbers were starting to rise again.
Sixth, Bill Richardson seems to be best fundraiser of the second tier Democratic candidates. This was certainly in doubt, as many pundits had expected Chris Dodd to make a strong showing, given his past fundraising proficiency. However, both Dodd’s and Joe Biden’s numbers were disappointing, leaving Richardson in the best position to move up in the event of a major stumble by one of the frontrunners.
Seventh, no Republican second tier candidate was able to step up and separate himself from the others. Beyond the top three candidates, the field is still wide open, leaving a chance for one of the other declared candidates to distinguish himself during the second quarter or, more likely, leaving an opening for someone like Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, or Chuck Hagel to join the fray.
So, the stage has been set for second quarter. I’m looking forward to it.