Hats off to Bernie and Ben!
The ultimate outsiders have acquired the ultimate insider’s credential: enormous war chests of political money.
In the third quarter of this year, Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent running for president as a Democrat, raised $26 million. Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon seeking the Republican nomination, raised $20 million in that same short three months.
If you had asked on New Year’s Day which candidates for president would be topping $20 million in this quarter, only the most fanatic followers of Sanders and Carson would have named their guys. (And even they might not have believed it.)
Sanders, of course, is challenging the juggernaut of Hillary Clinton, the former senator and secretary of state. That means he is taking on the entire Clinton mystique, including a fundraising apparatus that’s been operating for at least a quarter century. Clinton did raise more than Sanders in the quarter ($28 million), but she had to do lots of personal events to get there. The Sanders campaign says he relied on more than 1 million online donations by hundreds of thousands of small donors. Now, that’s a movement.
Carson, for his part, is up against a dozen major Republican rivals, some of them tapping into the deepest wells of wealth associated with the GOP. But here again, small donors and online contributions lifted the once-obscure Marylander to unforeseen heights.
This is not just a money story, of course. The last six national polls show Sanders with an average of 27 percent of the Democratic primary vote, which is double what he had in June. Clinton’s lead, once more than 50 points, is now in the low teens, and Sanders actually leads her in the first primary state of New Hampshire.
Similarly, Carson has settled in as the runner-up to the Republicans’ improbable front-runner: Donald Trump. Carson draws as much as 20 percent of the Republican vote in one recent poll, and he is poised to benefit if Trump’s support wanes.
All of which means the enthusiasts in Sanders’ and Carson’s camps can take a bow and bask in the glow of confirmation. Their faith in their long-shot heroes has been vindicated. At least for now.
There is, of course, a cautionary note.
Since the modern campaign finance era began in the mid-1970s, there have been numerous candidates who came from back in the pack to prominence based on their fundraising in the year preceding the actual presidential primaries. Some, including first-term Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, marched on to the nomination of their party and even to the White House itself.
Others, however, have not.
One rather obvious analog to contemplate is Howard Dean’s skyrocket campaign of a dozen years ago. Dean, like Sanders a New Yorker transplanted to Vermont, had been that state’s successful multiterm governor and would later be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But between those jobs he decided to challenge the incumbent president, George W. Bush.
For a time in 2003, Dean’s innovative campaign — often called the first campaign of the Internet age — was blowing away half a dozen intraparty competitors with its online organizing and fundraising. Just 12 years ago this week, Dean was reporting $14.8 million raised in the third quarter, shattering the old record held by President Bill Clinton in his re-election cycle.
But when Dean got to Iowa’s caucuses a few months later, his appeal seemed to fade. He finished a disappointing third, and his curiously manic concession speech (ending with a hoarse scream) instantly entered the annals of campaign error. A week later, his wide lead in New Hampshire had vanished and he lost that contest as well. A third-place showing in Wisconsin ended the Dean campaign.
The eagerness with which activists, populists and liberals flocked to Dean in 2003 was simply not matched in the actual voting events of 2004. But if the Dean case is a fresh memory for Democrats, the scenario of more donors than delegates is far more common on the other side of the partisan divide.
Republican hopefuls with fat wallets who folded early have been a feature of nearly every presidential cycle since the 1970s. The granddaddy of these was John Connally’s 1980 campaign. The former governor of Texas and Treasury secretary raised what was then an eye-popping total of $12 million. Yet he bombed so badly in the early voting that he won only one lone convention delegate en route to his withdrawal in March.
In 1988 there was Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist who made a direct pitch to evangelical Christians and other religious conservatives. Robertson was able to mobilize major donation totals en route to a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, where he finished ahead of the eventual nominee, George H.W. Bush. But Robertson prevailed only in Alaska, Nevada and the state of Washington, dropping out in March.
In 1996, the GOP fundraising sweepstakes was won by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, whose $20 million haul was a new record of achievement at the time. “I’ve got the best friend any presidential candidate can have,” Gramm boasted. “Ready money.” But Gramm did not have enough friends who could actually vote for him. He invested heavily in a straw poll in Louisiana and lost, then finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses. He quit the race the weekend before the New Hampshire primary.
In 2008, the big fundraising noise in the preceding year came from Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City. But Giuliani never won any actual voting events. The same was true four years later for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who limped home fifth in Iowa and was soon gone.
The lesson of all these campaigns is that money, while an essential test of viability in the early stages of a campaign, is no guarantee of electability. Translating financial validation into votes is more a matter of message, personality and performance over long months of media exposure and competition.
All eyes on you, Bernie and Ben.