The investment banker Robert Wolf first met Barack Obama one afternoon in December in a midtown conference room. Obama was in town to deliver a speech at a charity dinner for children in poverty at the Mandarin Oriental—but also to pursue another, less high-minded, but more momentous, objective: to begin the process of attempting to pick Hillary Clinton’s pocket.
The conference room belonged to George Soros, the billionaire bête noire of the right. After talking to Soros for an hour about his prospective bid for the White House, Obama walked down the hall and found assembled a dozen of the city’s heaviest-hitting Democratic fund-raisers: investment banker Hassan Nemazee, Wall Street power Blair Effron, private-equity hotshot Mark Gallogly, hedge-fund manager Orin Kramer. Most had been big-time John Kerry backers in 2004. Most had a connection to the Clintons. All were officially uncommitted for 2008.
Comparatively speaking, Wolf, now the CEO of UBS Americas, was a buck-raking neophyte. But his prodigious recent efforts (first for Kerry, then for House and Senate Democrats in 2006) had established him as a rising star in the fund-raising firmament. Until a few weeks earlier, the presidential horse he’d planned to ride in 2008 was former Virginia governor Mark Warner. But with Warner’s decision to forgo the race, Wolf was up for grabs—and in the sights of every Democrat in the field.
What Wolf, 45, was looking for was a candidate who could change the tenor of our politics. “I’d like my children to soon see a president give a State of the Union address and have both parties applaud,” he tells me. But Wolf was looking, too, for a campaign where his presence would be “impactful,” for a candidate who would take his calls, listen to his ideas. He wanted to feel the love. And while Wolf refuses to speak ill of Clinton, it’s clear he doubted that, no matter how much dough he raised, he’d ever be feeling it from her.
Wolf was wowed by Obama that afternoon: his straightforwardness, his “bold and impressive” early stance against the Iraq war. He handed Obama his card and said, “I’d like to get to know you more.” Obama phoned the next day. “When we hung up, he said, ‘I’ll call you after the holidays,’ and I’m thinking, Yeah, right, he’s gonna call me,” Wolf says. But call Obama did. The next week, they had dinner in Washington, just the two of them, on the night that George W. Bush gave his speech announcing the surge of additional troops into Iraq. “I felt so honored to be sitting down with him for two hours on an occasion like that,” Wolf recalls, “knowing that he was going off to be interviewed on television later.”
Within ten days, Obama had announced his intention to run and Clinton was officially in. A story in the Times reported that Obama had nailed two A-list New York donors: Soros and Wolf. But though Soros’s backing was a symbolic coup, it’s Wolf who has emerged as Obama’s most copious cash collector in the city so far—hosting two high-dollar cocktail parties, making countless calls, harvesting more than $500,000. As Wolf tells me about the soirées he’s hosted, he reaches into a meticulously organized scrapbook, takes out a photograph of him and Obama grinning madly, and tells me that I can keep it. “The way Barack has taken this nation with his rock-star status,” he says, “it’s very exciting!”
The courtship of Robert Wolf is, of course, part of a larger story: How Obama, from a standing start three months ago, built a fund-raising apparatus as powerful as Clinton’s. How Obama’s people, tapping a national hunger for something new and fresh, along with the unease of many Democrats about Clinton, ginned up more money for use in the primaries than she did. How they kicked her ass on the Internet and tapped twice as many donors overall. How they even held their own against the Clinton machine in New York. How Obama, that is, won the money primary—or, at least, its first installment—and arguably turned himself into the race’s co-front-runner.
New Yorkers have long understood the money primary and its importance in signaling a candidate’s plausibility. In a deep-blue city where the Democratic primary has traditionally taken place too late to matter, the battle for cash is the one contest in which New Yorkers (a certain class of New Yorkers) have been able tangibly to influence the selection of the party’s nominee. As Julius Genachowski, a high-tech player and law-school friend of Obama’s, puts it, “Other states vote; New York invests.”
Yet the context in which the money primary is taking place this year is radically different from before. With some two dozen states, including ours, now planning to hold primaries on February 5, the ability to raise vast quantities of early cash is seen by many operatives as essential—not just to create a perception of strength but to build a viable organization. “I say this all the time: It’s over on February 5,” argues Terry McAuliffe, Clinton’s campaign chairman. “To raise money to compete in Texas, California, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Michigan, all on one day—extraordinary!”
Thus the lunatic pace and scale of the campaign now unfolding: a race that seems hopped up on steroids and speed simultaneously. With all three top-tier Democratic candidates having rejected federal spending limits for the primaries, experts reckon the race overall may consume over $1 billion, in excess of the GDP of more than a few small countries. On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are on the air with advertising (nine months before the first ballots are cast, for heaven’s sake). And Democrats are turning out in thousands-strong crowds for Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards—portending a campaign of mind-boggling ferocity and unpredictability.
This sooner-bigger-faster dynamic was supposed to be Clinton’s friend. With her purportedly unmatchable capacity to raise stratospheric sums, she seemed to be on an inexorable march to the nomination. But with Obama’s show of fund-raising strength—and Edwards’s, too—that scenario has flown out the window. “The air of inevitability is gone,” says a mega-fund-raiser for Clinton in New York. “Not everyone in the campaign believed this before, but we’ve got a race on our hands.”
The putative Clinton juggernaut was launched on February 6, with a dinner at her house in Washington. In attendance were 70 of Clinton’s top-shelf fund-raisers from around the country, including New York financiers Alan Patricof and Steve Rattner. The following day, more than a hundred so-called Hillraisers—donors pledged to pulling in at least $25,000 each—filed into the Hyatt Regency for briefings by Clinton’s senior strategists, who offered presentations designed to reinforce her status as the unequivocal, eminently electable, Democratic front-runner.
For weeks already, the Clinton finance team had been working to lock up as many premier bundlers—people proficient at accumulating piles of other people’s checks—as possible. Nowhere was the effort more avid than in New York, especially when it came to bundlers flirting with Obama. In short order, the campaign landed Nemazee and Effron, along with PR executive Robert Zimmerman, who’d raised money for Bill Clinton and Al Gore but was keeping his mind open about 2008. “The Obama outreach was sophisticated, cleverly orchestrated; I met with him and was impressed,” says Zimmerman. “But it wasn’t a hard call. Hillary has the experience and knows how to beat the Republicans, and I can’t stress enough how important that is.”
Other Clinton fund-raisers, however, rendered their decision more on the basis of personal cost-benefit analyses. “I’ll probably be a chicken and go with Hillary,” one confided months ago. “Everybody thinks I’m going to. It’s easy to explain. I have a long relationship with her, I do like and respect her, I’d be happy if she won. So I can support her, frankly, without pissing off Barack or anyone else. But if I support Barack, I’d piss off a bunch of other folks—and who needs that?”
The Clinton rollout amounted to a show of overwhelming force, the fund-raising equivalent of shock and awe. The list of boldface names behind her was endless: Roger Altman, Fred Hochberg, Stanley Shuman, Carl Spielvogel. Though Clinton proclaimed that she hoped to raise $15 million in the first quarter and $75 million by the end of the year, both record-breaking goals, the consensus in political circles was that these were plainly lowball numbers. Reports in the press stated that the campaign was calling on its upper-echelon bundlers to reap at least $250,000 and as much as $1 million each. One such bundler, New York supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis, boasted to the Web magazine the Politico, “She’s going to raise more money than all the other candidates put together.”
To a great degree, presidential fund-raising is an expectations game: Set them low, then blow them away. But, curiously, the Clinton campaign seemed to be lifting the bar rather than depressing it. “There are a lot of people who give to who they think is going to win; they want to be on the winning team so they can be an ambassador or who the hell knows what,” observes a Clinton bundler. “Adopting a we’re-gonna-crush-everyone approach was a way to attract as many of those people as possible.”
Yet alongside the aura of invincibility, the Clinton team projected something else: a tacit message that it was time for big-dollar Democrats to choose between Obama and Hillary. On the bus or off the bus. No hedging allowed. And apostates would pay a price. For some in the party, the tactic struck a nerve. “It’s almost like a shakedown—you’re with us or you’re not,” Jim Neal, a North Carolina investment banker who was on an early conference call with McAuliffe, told the Times. “I find the squeeze, this early, to be quite vulgar … It’s a bullying tactic.”
McAuliffe reacts with outsize outrage to suggestions of strong-arming. “Give me one example! One example of one individual who works for this campaign who has ever threatened anyone! It hasn’t happened,” he tells me. “People rumor about the Hillary Clinton campaign all the time. But I’ve probably spoken to 15,000 or 20,000 people in this campaign so far, and I haven’t had one complaint from one person I’ve spoken to.”
Patricof says the same. “I didn’t have to drag anyone kicking and screaming into this,” he tells me. “And I would never say, ‘You’re either with us or against us’—it’s not in my vocabulary.”
Some Obama backers acknowledge that the widespread accusations of Clintonian heavy-handedness are overblown. “[Clinton finance director] Jonathan Mantz doesn’t do that,” says an Obama bundler. “In this game, you have a thousand agents out there—who knows what they’re saying?” He goes on, “The pressure they exerted comes from trying to create this steamroller effect: ‘We have the most resources, the most talent, the most endorsements, so we’re going to win.’ The dynamic isn’t, ‘You’re with us or against us.’ It’s, ‘You’re with us or you’re a moron.’”
Even loyal denizens of Clintonworld don’t bother to dispute that. They also note the Clintons have elephant memories and value loyalty above all. The result is a realm where threats are unnecessary, because they are implicit: the threat of ostracism, in particular, of being banished from the charmed circle.
“There are some people the Clintons consider Clinton people who have gotten behind Barack,” a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary’s explains to me. “And there will be total retribution if the opportunity presents itself.”
Total retribution? You’re joking, right?
“I’m not joking. They’re not going to audit somebody’s tax return or anything. But once you’ve been in the Clinton camp, once they think you’re part of the team, once you’ve helped them and they’ve helped you and you then go somewhere else—I just think it’s very hard to crawl back into their good graces. I’m not saying it won’t happen. But they won’t forget. They may take you back eventually, but they won’t forget.”
Two weeks after his dinner in Washington with Obama, Robert Wolf found himself supping there with the senator again, in a private room at the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse near Dupont Circle. But this time, their meal was by no means à deux. Around the table sat the members of Obama’s embryonic New York finance committee: fund manager Jim Torrey (whose daughter is on the staff of this magazine); Provident Group partner Brian Mathis; Citibank executive Michael Froman; private-equity manager Jamie Rubin; and Orin Kramer.
Kramer had yet to sign on to support Obama; he was doing due diligence. But everyone understood what a score bringing him onboard would be. At 61, Kramer was a Clinton stalwart who’d piled up mountainous stacks of cash for Gore and Kerry. “Orin sort of owns New Jersey when it comes to raising money,” says Torrey. When the dinner was over, Kramer and the others raced to catch the last shuttle back to New York. At the airport, Froman and Mathis kept prodding him to pull the trigger. “All right, enough already!” Kramer said, pulling out his cell phone and calling Mantz to break the news that he was defecting.
Kramer had been mulling the decision, tortured by conflicting feelings, for weeks. “I ran up against my pain threshold,” he said at the time. “I have unalloyed respect for Senator Clinton … But despite being a dinosaur, I’m drawn to a different kind of political experience.” Moreover, Kramer had concluded, contrary to the conventional wisdom then, that Obama had a chance to win. “The market has mispriced him,” Kramer told friends. “The street thinks he’s a 5-to-1 underdog, but I think he’s undervalued.”
Kramer was by no means the only migrant from Clintonworld to Obamaland. “The first part of the calculus was about the civic good,” one former administration official tells me. “Who would be a better president? It’s a toss-up—maybe Hillary on the margin. But the likelihood is that whoever you support is going to lose, that’s just the odds, so it should matter who’d be the better candidate—I mean, better for the country. And I thought Obama, simply by being a candidate and by virtue of the policies and values he’d espouse as a candidate, had a chance to change the country. The second part is the personal: The Clintons are basically disloyal people. They have a huge track record of jettisoning people far closer to them than I am on the slightest political pretext. Loyalty has to be a two-way street. I don’t think they’ve earned the right to play the loyalty card.”
Other Obama bundlers simply found the prospect of plumping for Clinton too depressing to bear. “Hillary has the same problem that Gore and Kerry had,” says one. “There are people who believe passionately in her, but a lot have reservations about her electability. I can raise a lot of money for Barack because people are enthusiastic about him. But if I go out and raise money for Hillary, it’s like I’m taxing my friends.”
One unsurprising aspect of Obama’s New York fund-raising network was its ebony hue: the presence of high-profile black bundlers, such as publisher Earl Graves and music executive Andre Harrell. But the most striking element of its composition wasn’t racial but generational: Unlike the Clinton side, which was dominated by folks in their fifties, the Obamans were mostly in their forties. “One thing we recognized early on,” says David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist, “was that there is a substrata of people who in past campaigns weren’t allowed to sit at the adult table but who all of a sudden were quite formidable.”
Many of Obama’s baby bundlers cut their teeth in Bill Clinton’s administration. Mathis and Froman both worked in the Treasury Department, while Rubin, son of Bob, had been a staffer at the Federal Communications Commission. There was also Josh Steiner, another Treasury hand and now a partner of Steve Rattner’s at the Quadrangle Group. And others had no Clintonian association, but were emerging fund-raising powerhouses, such as former Goldman Sachs golden boy Eric Mindich.
At the heart of the next-gen cadre were Froman and Mathis, both law-school classmates of Obama’s. Together, they recognized that, whereas the Clinton fund-raising corps represented the financial elite tossed up by the LBO and M&A booms of the eighties, they were in a position to mine the vein of freshly minted money spawned by the hedge-fund and private- equity eruptions of the new millennium. The players behind those booms had no loyalties, and owed no debts, to the Clinton dynasty. They were looking for a candidate to call their own.
“In Barack’s speech in Selma [earlier this year],” a baby bundler says, “he talked about the Moses generation and the Joshua generation in the civil-rights movement. It’s sorta the same story here.” He continues, “If we all lined up for Hillary, we wouldn’t have even gotten into the anteroom, let alone had seats at the table—there’s no more room. It would’ve been, ‘You have an idea? Send us an e-mail and we’ll have someone get back to you. Oh, and don’t forget to send those checks.’ But that’s not how it is with Barack. We’re already at the table.”
Then there was Julius Genachowski, who for years was Barry Diller’s go-to guy at InterActiveCorp. Genachowski connected Obama to another pool of money: technology and media. Co-hosting fund-raisers in New York and Washington (with former FCC chairs Reed Hundt and Bill Kennard), he helped raise more than $600,000. And he focused on Obama’s Internet operations, persuading the campaign to hire both a private-sector tech wizard and one from the political world. Today, Obama’s Web presence is best in show—a crucial asset in the dollar derby.
By early March, when Obama hit New York on a fund-raising swing, the sense of momentum was palpable. On a Monday night, Obama crammed in a quartet of parties: two hosted by Wolf, one by Edgar Bronfman Jr., one at the Park Avenue home of music impresario Antonio “LA” Reid. “We had Beyoncé and Patricia Duff, Jay-Z and Jamie Rubin, Jermaine Dupri and Jonathan Soros,” Mathis says about the Reid affair. “We raised north of $350,000 in two hours. And that’s when it became crystal clear to all of us: We can raise this money.”
For all the campaigns, March ended in a flurry. A story in the Daily News provoked spasms of fear and trembling for the Obama and Edwards people: Hillary Clinton had apparently raised $10 million in one week. But there were reasons to wonder if the Clinton people were getting twitchy, too: In the last six weeks of the quarter, the campaign had dispatched Bill Clinton to a startling sixteen fund-raisers. Inside the campaign, there were no worries about their final number—it would be gargantuan. But Team Clinton was hearing “rumbles,” McAuliffe told me later, about an Obama surge. “I probably made 1,500 calls this quarter,” McAuliffe noted. “And there’s not a donor I called that Obama didn’t call three, four, five times. So I knew he was working hard. I knew he was doing well on the Internet. And I knew someone was going to capture this antiwar stuff like Howard Dean did.”
The antiwar stuff was also fueling Edwards’s fund-raising efforts. The former North Carolina senator was expected by no one to come close to matching his rivals’ tallies—especially in New York, where his populism made him less palatable to many Wall Street donors. Still, on the last day of the quarter, when I visited Brian Mixer, Edwards’s New York finance director, in his office near Union Square, Mixer was serene. “We’re going to more than double what we did in primary money in New York in the first quarter of 2003,” Mixer said with evident satisfaction. “We raised a million then—and we’ll do $2.5 million this time.”
Leo Hindrey, the former CEO of the YES Network and one of Edwards’s prime bundlers, told me, “The Clinton people think they own New York—but what they’re finding out is that it’s true for the Senate but not for the presidency.” Mixer added, “What we’ve heard is that they tell people, ‘If you give money to us, you can’t give to anyone else.’ We say, ‘We understand she’s your senator, but why not help us out, too?” Mixer pauses. “Hey, we’re doing fine—there’s a lot of money in New York.”
Precisely how much would not become clear for another two weeks, the deadline for the campaigns to file detailed reports with the Federal Election Commission. But 24 hours later, Clinton’s first-quarter total became public—via the Drudge Report, no less. The number was indeed staggering: $36 million. But not as staggering as it appeared. For one thing, it included $10 million left over from her Senate race last year. And of the remaining $26 million, some (though the campaign didn’t disclose the figure) had been raised for the general election. By leaking the $36 million figure, the Clinton team was hoping to garner one news cycle in which their results would be seen in the most flattering light. And by not revealing their primary number, they would deny the press the ability to do an immediate comparison with Obama’s—which they suspected might be larger than hers.
They were right about that, but they would have to wait awhile to discover just how right. Displaying their own media savvy, Obama’s people let anticipation mount for three days before unveiling their numbers. Speculation flooded the political ether: $20 million? $21 million? $23 million?! More, in fact: $25 million, an astonishing figure for a start-up campaign, all the more so because $23.5 million was for the primaries—more than Clinton’s total. (By law, the maximum individual donation to presidential candidates is $2,300 for the primaries and the same for the general election, and whereas Obama’s fund-raisers, as a rule, collected only primary cash, the Clintonites held many $4,600 events.)
And what of New York? Not surprisingly, the Clinton number was gigantic: more than $8 million. But Obama’s was nothing to sneeze at: more than $4 million. Consider, for a start, that Clinton raised next to nothing in Chicago (this in spite of its being her actual hometown). And consider the likelihood that Clinton has tapped out her high-dollar donor base in the city, while Obama’s new-money brigade is expanding as contributors are transformed into bundlers.
Ten minutes after the Obama press release hit my in-box, I phoned one of Clinton’s most potent fund-raisers in the city.
So: $25 million total, $23.5 million for the primary, 100,000 donors, I said.
“I think everybody will be surprised. Her number was what they always told us it was going to be. But the idea that he would get as far as he got, I don’t think anyone thought it was possible.”
Seems as though her people let expectations get away from them a bit.
“The last couple weeks, they’ve been trying to play down our number to spin you guys back to where they wanted you. But it’s pretty hard to spin this.”
Not that McAuliffe isn’t prepared to give it the old college try. It’s the Friday after the numbers hit the streets, April 6, and Clinton’s chairman and I are sitting in Mantz’s tenth-floor office in the campaign’s K Street headquarters. The couch is red, the carpet is blue, and McAuliffe’s face is alabaster-white. McAuliffe, 50, is justifiably called the greatest fund-raiser in Democratic history (though critics of the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics hardly consider that an honorific). Also the most maniacal: Famously, he once wrestled a 260-pound alligator to win a $15,000 donation to the Florida Democratic Party. Today, McAuliffe reminds me that, as a kid growing up, he was a boxer. “We’re now in a fight,” he says. “This is great. I’m actually excited.”
I start by asking about the campaign’s efforts to foster around Hillary a sheen of invulnerability—efforts that now seem to have backfired. (On top of Obama’s haul, the Edwards campaign pulled in $14 million, double its take in the same period four years ago.) I tell McAuliffe that I’d spoken to a Clinton White House veteran, who observed, “It’s like they thought they were running the Mondale campaign; they were just going to smother the other guy with money and endorsements.”
“Let’s just stop right there,” McAuliffe says, his voice quickly rising. “So we just finished up the biggest quarter in the history of American politics. She’s ahead in the polls. We’re taking nothing for granted … I’ve said this from day one, I’ve said this to Hillary: You’ve got to earn it. She knows it, her husband knows it, and it’s gonna be a long, hard fight.”
I mention that I’d been in Chicago the previous day to visit Obama headquarters and that his people had been fairly gloating over a particular statistic: that the database of Clinton donors from her last Senate race contains 250,000 names, yet the campaign had received just 50,000 contributions this quarter—a pretty meager conversion rate. “First of all, that’s direct mail,” McAuliffe says. “We did only three mailings this quarter, and the response we got back from people is that it’s too early. It’s just timing. They’ll all be there by the end of ’07—those 250,000 donors will be back.”
McAuliffe’s confidence (overconfidence?) strikes me as a less extreme version of some of the wild-eyed claims made by the campaign’s bundlers two months earlier. I ask Mantz, who’s behind his desk, what he thought when he heard one of his fund-raisers say that Clinton would raise as much as the others put together.
“I love that guy,” Mantz deadpans. “Seriously, what I thought was, How you think this is helpful, I’m not quite sure.”
There’ve been mild complaints by some Clinton bundlers that Hillary personally didn’t do enough events or make enough phone calls in the first quarter; that she relied too heavily on her surrogates; that, in short, she was complacent. McAuliffe and Mantz allow that Clinton wasn’t as active as Obama. But they argue she was busy attending to her duties in the Senate, wangling endorsements—important work. “And yet she raised more money this quarter than any candidate in history; I’m almost embarrassed to be having this conversation with you!” McAuliffe says. “We were able to do what we wanted to based on the time she gave us. And in the second quarter, she’s probably got double the events coming up, a lot more small-donor ones across the country.”
Even in New York, Patricof tells me later, Clinton still has plenty of upside potential. “New York’s not tapped out for us at all. There’s a natural inclination at the beginning to go to your first tier. Now there’s going to be greater outreach to new constituencies, new communities, ethnic groups. There are people on my list I still haven’t called yet. And I plan to get on the phone with them very, very soon.”
That Clinton will knock the cover off the ball in the second quarter is a lead-pipe certainty. For all the ambivalence about her in some quarters, in others there’s adulation—and Clinton is disciplined and relentless enough to track down every fan. And McAuliffe and Mantz are right to say that her first-quarter showing was stellar. Mismanaged expectations aside, the real story of the money primary so far isn’t that Hillary underperformed. She did not. The real story is about how Obama killed—and what it means for his candidacy and the race ahead.
David Axelrod has an answer at the ready, which isn’t surprising, since being on-message comes as naturally for him as breathing. At 52, Axelrod is among the best and most storied consultants in the business; his résumé lists stints with four of the Democratic presidential candidates this year (Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Chris Dodd) as well as Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel. With a caterpillar mustache and a comb-over, he’s unfashionable to a fault; today, in his offices in Chicago, he’s wearing a red shirt and green corduroys, looking altogether too Christmassy for the first week of April.
“The most gratifying thing about our fund-raising success isn’t the bottom line,” Axelrod says, “but the number of people who have contributed and the number who are small contributors. The people we’re targeting are new to this; they’re not constrained by old loyalties. There’s a lot of energy in that world, and it gives us enormous potential to grow.” When I ask if he’s implying a contrast to Clintonworld, Axelrod offers up a pointed aperçu: “There’s a difference between grabbing low-hanging fruit and planting trees.”
Obama’s finance people know that historically the second and third quarters have seen a falloff in contributions. But whatever happens next on the money front, the political implications of Obama’s first quarter are already set in stone. The central question about Obama is whether, for all his charisma and star power, he may simply be a flash in the pan. And that question remains largely unanswered. He has yet to demonstrate anything approaching depth on any area of policy. He has yet to articulate a compelling vision of America’s place in the world at a time of clear and present peril. For many people, even those inclined to favor him, he remains something of a cipher. And he has yet to be tested under fire or to prove that he has the fortitude required to withstand the rigors of a presidential campaign—which Clinton has been and does in spades. But Obama’s performance in the money primary does demonstrate that he can build an organization, in a breathtakingly short time, that can go toe-to-toe with hers. And that is no small thing. “As someone new to the presidential process, there was a question of, ‘Can he hack it?’” says Axelrod. “That question has been answered.”
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.”
How could it happen? Edwards, who by common consensus needs to win Iowa to survive, doesn’t—Obama does. Hillary wins Nevada and New Hampshire. Obama wins South Carolina, where the black vote is potentially huge and Hillary is unloved. Now it’s a jump ball on February 5—and Obama and Hillary split the big states between them.
Ah, the lure of fantasy. Which is probably exactly what it is. But more of a fantasy than Obama’s beating Clinton in the money primary? We are in uncharted waters here. Things could get very weird.