At the stroke of midnight on Saturday, the music will stop, and each presidential candidate will push the proverbial button on a key indicator of how he or she is doing: the fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2007.
Ask any of the top-tier candidates how they think the fundraising is going, and they are likely to provide a lowball estimate. For the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, that means tamping down expectations that she could report more than $30 million for the first quarter – topping both parties' fields – and hinting that Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois could even beat her.
For Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, it has meant warning that his first-quarter totals could be relatively low, blaming a "late start" and Senate duties that have kept him in Washington rather than out on the fundraising circuit.
For the second-tier candidates, the trick is to convince donors that they are worth the investment, despite low poll numbers – and then do better than expected. For all the candidates, beating expectations is the name of the game. But the ultimate bottom line is that, in the 2008 presidential cycle, already in high gear, the amounts of money needed to be competitive dwarf what was required even four years ago.
"Four years ago, in the first quarter, John Edwards raised $7.4 million, and everybody was oohing and aahing," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Now, to say $10 million is a bare threshold of acceptability is probably pushing it a bit. But if you're not in the $5 [million] to $6 million range, you'll have trouble."
Still, he and other analysts do not expect any candidates to be forced out of the race by their first-quarter totals. But for those not in the top tier of each major party, the goal now is to become the fourth candidate – and to make a strong push in the second quarter to break into the top tier.
On the Democratic side, with a top tier of Senators Clinton and Obama and former North Carolina Senator Edwards, analysts will be watching to see how New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut fare.
Among those three, the candidate to watch is Senator Dodd – if not in the first quarter, then in the second. As chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, he has access to big money from the financial sector. Also, as a senator from Connecticut, with many well-heeled residents, there's another pool of donors. And as former chairman of the Demo-cratic National Committee, Dodd has good nationwide contacts.
On the Republican side, the top three – former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Senator McCain, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney – are expected to finish roughly equal. It's possible that Mr. Romney, by far the least well-known nationally and lowest in the polls of the three will win the GOP first-quarter "money primary." Romney, a former venture capitalist, is wired toward fundraising and is even offering college students a cut of whatever they take in from their fundraising calls.
Among the lower-tier Republican candidates, people such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, are hoping to catch fire among religious conservatives and become "their" candidate, which could help create a snowball effect in fundraising. Still, for both parties' fields, the old trick of getting hot, raking in lots of money after the first quarter, and then riding a wave of support toward the nomination remains as difficult as ever, even with the Internet.
To be sure, Internet fundraising has become central to any campaign. For Obama, it has been especially key, as he seeks to tap grass-roots excitement around his candidacy and defeat Clinton, the Democratic establishment favorite. While in 2000, McCain could wow the political world with a $1 million day of Internet fundraising, and in 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry could do the same with a $5 million day, now there's no reason for a candidate not to have a $10 million day.
Internet fundraising has solved the old problem of the time lag in mailing and cashing checks. But now there's a new problem: the compressed calendar of primaries and caucuses.
"Even if you get a wave of funding after New Hampshire [the first primary], you don't really have time to put it to work in the large number of states you will be facing on Feb. 5," the day in 2008 that is shaping up to be almost a national primary, says Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
He says that money will probably be available for media buys, but not for staff and ground support, another essential ingredient in building a successful campaign.