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Fundraising: Much Ado Over Not All That Much

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

Friday, July 22, 2011

Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer is expected to officially launch his presidential campaign today. His announcement again tests the famous philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Roemer, who the Crystal Ball has ranked dead last among 12 potential presidential contenders, won't win the Republican nomination for many reasons, but let's just cherry-pick one: He only raised $41,000 in the last quarter, which wouldn't be much for a House race, let alone the top job in the country. Roemer has campaigned on not accepting "PAC money" and he has limited individual contributions to $100.

Obviously, someone who is as unknown as Roemer needs at least some money if he's going to make noise in the polls. But even if he had millions upon millions to spend, could he actually win? Of course not. It doesn't take a political science doctorate to discern that Roemer, who finished third in his gubernatorial reelection bid behind former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and then-future convict Edwin Edwards in 1991, is not an impressive candidate.

Fundraising alone doesn't make bad candidates good, nor does it automatically neutralize the tidal waves of national opinion that have been awfully common in recent American political life.

News sites were filled with endless reports in the past two weeks about candidate fundraising for the second quarter of 2011 (April 1 to June 30). Some challengers who had unexpectedly big hauls boosted their profiles, such as the likely Republican challenger to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Josh Mandel, who raised $2.3 million; while some incumbents with poor totals invited retirement rumors, such as the redistricting-threatened Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), who only raised $45,000.

Fundraising can be a good barometer of whether a certain candidate is selling or not, and it is undoubtedly helpful in boosting one's image or tearing down that of an opponent. But in terms of actual Election Day performance, it's not at all clear that a big haul necessarily guarantees anything.

Even on a tight budget, Roemer might have a chance to do as well in 2012 as Rudy Giuliani did in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries. The former New York City mayor raised $59 million* to win a single delegate in the 2008 Republican contest. Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee raised only about a fourth of that -- $16 million -- and won several states, including Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus. Why was that? Because Huckabee appealed to actual primary voters, worked hard in his campaign and generated "earned" – as in free – media; Giuliani, whose social views were anathema to GOP primary voters, skipped the early primaries and took the wind out of his own sails. Mitt Romney raised about $107 million in the nominating battle, but he ultimately never won a caucus or primary that mattered. If the claim that money buys elections is true, then his donors deserve a refund. Money had little to do with these candidates' respective performances, or lack thereof.

The value of campaign fundraising is debatable in congressional elections, too.

In 2006 and 2008, for instance, Democrats won a net total of 14 Senate seats from Republicans. In the 11 races where a Democratic challenger defeated a Republican incumbent, only one challenger (Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island) raised more than his Republican opponent (Lincoln Chafee). In all 10 other races, the incumbent -- as could be expected, given the power commanded by a sitting senator -- outraised his or her challenger, sometimes significantly. All are former senators.

In the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate race, for instance, then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R) outraised his opponent, Bob Casey, by nearly $11 million; Santorum lost by 17 percentage points. The same thing happened to then-Sen. George Allen (R-VA), who nearly doubled up Jim Webb (D) in the fundraising game but lost a razor-thin race.

In last year's Senate contests, Republicans picked up a net of six seats. In one of those races, then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) raised almost four times more than her general election opponent, John Boozman (R); Boozman won the race by more than 20 points, although Lincoln had to also face a costly and utterly pointless (for Democrats) primary challenge. Ex-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) raised $20.8 million; he was replaced in the Senate by Ron Johnson (R), who raised $15.2 million.

Republican Sharron Angle actually outraised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), but Reid won easily. In an open seat contest, wrestling magnate Linda McMahon (R) raised more than five times ($50.3 million to $8.7 million; nearly all of it was her own money) as much as Richard Blumenthal (D). Yet Blumenthal, not McMahon, is now a senator. Christine O'Donnell (R) upset ex-Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) in a primary, and she raised more than $7.5 million in her race for a Delaware Senate seat. But Democrat Chris Coons, who raised only $3.9 million, beat her handily.

In the House, Republicans won 66 Democratic-held seats last year. In only 20 of those races did the Republican candidate outraise the Democratic candidate; and of those 20 big-spending Republicans only nine were running against Democratic incumbents.

Fundraising can simply be a measure as to whether a candidate is an incumbent or not. Incumbency has its advantages, including being able to raise money, but incumbency can be trumped by a lot of factors, not the least of which can be vast swings in the national mood we have seen in the past three federal elections.

Obviously, any candidate would rather have much more money than his or her opponent. President Barack Obama, for instance, made a lot of news when he announced his impressive fundraising total for the second quarter: $47 million, or more than all the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination combined.

But would Obama give much of it up to get something he can't buy -- such as a better approval rating or the nomination of an easy-to-beat opponent (like, say, Buddy Roemer)? You bet.

It's a shame for Obama that he can't just cut Roemer a big check that gives the ex-governor a better shot at the nomination. But, since Roemer is limiting individual contributions to his campaign to only $100, Obama couldn't help much.

*Note: Dollar figures used in this article are according to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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