The unanswered question in all of this, of course, is how much, in the end, the money primary actually matters. The history here is singularly unhelpful. In 1995, GOP senator Phil Gramm declared, inspiringly, “I have the most reliable friend you can have in American politics, and that’s ready money.” Gramm set what was then a presidential fund-raising record—then failed to get past the Iowa caucus. In 2003, Edwards raised the most in the first quarter and Dean the most for the year—then both were trounced by Kerry. On the other hand, Gore set a Democratic record for first-quarter fund-raising in 1999 and went on to win. And Bush blew away his rivals that year, with the same result.
The reason why money is stipulated to matter more than ever this time—and the reason so much more is said to be required—is the accelerated primary schedule. As things now stand, there will be four small-state contests in January: the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. Then, on February 5, as many as 24 states, including some of the biggest, will vote in one fell swoop. “We are moving headlong into a quasi-national primary,” Axelrod explains. “You’ve got to build a quasi-national organization from day one. So your operations are more expensive. And the only thing inflating in cost faster than media is health care.”
There is, however, an alternative theory, espoused by the Edwards campaign, that the accelerated calendar actually makes money less important. “You have to hit a certain threshold,” says Edwards deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince. “You need enough money to saturate the first four states”—maybe $40 million. “After that, it’s all going to be about momentum. If you don’t have it, all the money in the world won’t be enough to help you. It’s not just that no campaign can possibly raise enough to saturate the airwaves on February 5. It’s that, even if you could, it wouldn’t be nearly enough to counteract the screaming headlines in every local paper and the five-minute pieces every night at the top of the evening news that the candidate with momentum will get.”
The Edwards argument is self-serving, to be sure, but far from implausible or lacking in precedent. “In 2000, Gore had momentum, Bradley had more money—which people forget—and Gore won,” says Nick Baldick, who ran Edwards’s campaign in 2004 and is now focused exclusively on the four early states. “In 2004, we had a favorable calendar, Dean had the money, but Kerry had momentum and that was everything.”
Can Edwards be the candidate to seize the early momentum? Quite possibly. While he’s clearly the underdog among the big three, his campaign has not only been the most substantive of the lot (see his proposal for universal health care) but also the most strategic and focused. Edwards is virtually living in Iowa, where his organization is deeply rooted. He’s tight with organized labor, which will be key in Nevada (because of the large unionized labor force in Las Vegas). And he stands a good chance in South Carolina, which he won in 2004.
I ask Axelrod what he thinks of the Edwards theory about the limited power of money. “It’s a theory,” he replies. “My theory is, I don’t know if they’re right, but I’d rather be prepared for either exigency.” Yet Axelrod doesn’t disagree that the outcome of the early states will be pivotal. “If someone rolls up a bunch of states before February 5, they’ll go into that day with a huge amount of momentum. And that’s our goal. To go into February 5 and deliver a knockout blow.”
That someone will deliver a knockout blow that day is the assumption of all three campaigns. But what if they are wrong? The possibility is tantalizing, and has led at least one Democratic savant to put forward a titillating scenario. “I may be the first idiot foolish enough to say it out loud, but we could be looking at something unheard of in the modern era—someone going into convention with only 30 percent, 40 percent of delegates,” Dean’s campaign guru, Joe Trippi, said recently. “Edwards, Hillary, and Obama may have enough cash before Iowa even happens to go all the way. The polls are basically all dead heats … What could happen is that we’re headed for a brokered convention.”
The brokered-convention scenario is the political equivalent of the fantasy of a Beatles reunion (back when they were all still alive, that is): “The obsession of nostalgia buffs,” as Axelrod puts it. Or maybe not. “I think Trippi is right that it’s more likely with this calendar,” says Baldick. “I don’t think it’ll happen, but if there’s split victories in the first four states and no one emerges with clear momentum, maybe.”