In a Politico article today, Michael Rosen argues that the media has been overemphasizing the importance of primary election fundraising totals, and that such dollars are not useful for general election victories:
“If you read the papers in recent days, you might have thought that Republicans were well on their way to the poorhouse in the presidential game. But despite the fundraising disparity between the Democrats and the GOP, don’t get too caught up in the numbers…”First, and most straightforward: the dollars that Clinton, Obama, and company have raked in are overwhelmingly for use during the primary and not the general election. True, some donors who maxed out their primary contribution limits gave further money for the general. But these were a tiny minority of contributors.
“Instead, the Democratic candidates’ fundraising prowess speaks to the passion of their donors’ sentiments about each candidate with respect to other Democrats. Obama raised his massive sums from folks who want to keep Clinton out of the Oval Office, and vice versa.”
I have two points of contention with this argument.
First, I disagree with the idea that current donors are part of an “intra-party rivalry”. Sure, Obama’s (or any other candidate’s) donors want him to beat the other candidates within his party, but mostly they are giving to him because they want him to be President. The idea that a pre-nomination donation is meant to fund an intra-party battle seems completely weak to me. Pre-nomination dollars, like post-nomination dollars, are almost universally given in support of the candidacy of a particular candidate, not in opposition to that candidate’s current rivals.
Second, the presentation of a distinction between “primary” and “general” election dollars is misleading. The article states, “the dollars that Clinton, Obama, and company have raked in are overwhelmingly for use during the primary and not the general election,” implying that these “primary” dollars don’t help the candidate become President, but only to get the nomination. First, any dollar spent building name recognition, developing a campaign infrastructure, and communicating a candidate’s message – whether in July of 2007 or October of 2008 – is a benefit to the candidate’s long-term political prospects. Additionally, though campaign finance law makes a distinction between “primary” and “general” election dollars, it is not in the way the article implies. By playing down the importance of primary election dollars, and implying that they are not as valuable as general election dollars, one could infer that primary election dollars can only be spent during the primary and only against intra-party rivals. Both of these implications are false. Primary election dollars can be spent against primary rivals, but can equally be spent against opposing party candidates. More important, unspent primary election dollars can be carried-over into the general election, and thus be used both as a primary election war chest and spent as general election dollars (assuming the candidate wins the primary election).
This is all to say that while the article may be correct in being critical of mainstream media’s emphasis on these fundraising benchmarks (the mainstream media tends to generally focus too much on these horse-race issues, ignoring real issues), the article swings the pendulum in the opposite direction, under-emphasizing the importance of these primary election financial totals.