No doubt about it, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York had a great third quarter of 2007.
For the first time, she beat her closest rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, in quarterly fundraising totals, bringing in $22 million in primary cash, versus Senator Obama's $19 million. Senator Clinton also brought in $5 million for use in the general election, if she's the nominee, while Obama brought in $1 million.
At the same time, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows, for the first time, more than half – 53 percent – of Democratic voters want Clinton to be their nominee, versus 20 percent for Obama. Clinton's average lead among Democrats in national polls stands at 20.3 percentage points, according to Realclearpolitics.com. Clearly, the former first lady has momentum.
But the Democratic nomination race is far from over. Since the beginning of the year, Obama has raised more money than Clinton – $75 million for the primaries, versus $63 million for Clinton.
Moreover, polls of likely caucusgoers in Iowa, home of the nation's first nominating contest, show the top three Democratic contenders – Obama, Clinton, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina – are neck and neck. A Newsweek poll this week showed them at 28, 24, and 22 percent, respectively.
"She's performed well on the campaign trail and has established her lead in the polls, and thus is attracting momentum money as well – the kind of money that wants to be behind the frontrunner," says Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "But it's not to say she's going to win the nomination."
A cadre of undecided voters
Polling in Iowa and New Hampshire, home of the first primary, shows there is still a fairly large portion of likely caucus-goers and voters who have not decided, Mr. Corrado notes. Both Clinton and Obama are well-positioned to vie for that vote. "For at least those two candidates, it becomes a function of what they do with the money, because both will have plenty of it to spend," he says.
Mr. Edwards raised $7 million in the third quarter. Last week he announced he would accept federal matching funds, which will give him enough money to make a credible run in the early states. But by opting into the public system, which Clinton and Obama have not moved to do, Edwards will have to accept restrictions on spending that could hamper him in the general election, should he win the nomination.
Totals for other Democratic candidates showed some may struggle to make it to the Feb. 5 "Super-duper Tuesday" contests, when at least 18 states will hold primaries: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson raised $5.2 million, and reports indicate Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware raised less than $2 million and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut took in $1.5 million. Numbers were unavailable for Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Polls' importance on the rise
Now that the first nominating contests are within shouting distance – expected to take place right after New Year's – polling data will grow in importance, as the media seek to handicap how candidates are doing.
"By the end of December, we'll have a lot of state polls in early states, and they will be significant," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University in Washington.
But even then, as the longtime 2004 Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean knows, polls taken a few weeks before caucuses and primaries can be misleading. Mr. Dean, now national Democratic chairman, seemed poised to win the crucial Iowa caucuses, and came in a stunning third place. His campaign crashed after that.
So if Obama were to win the Iowa caucuses, Clinton's air of inevitability will evaporate.
The Republicans' bankrolls
On the Republican side of the ledger, some of the top candidates had yet to report totals, thus making the shape of the GOP nomination race less clear than the Democratic side.
Late entrant Fred Thompson, the former US senator from Tennessee, pulled in a respectable $8 million. Sen. John McCain of Arizona brought in $5 million – enough to stay in the game after his campaign imploded over the summer but probably not enough to avoid taking public financing.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reportedly will announce about $10 million in third-quarter fundraising, plus a donation from his personal bank account of $6 million or $7 million.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was expected to report impressive third-quarter fundraising – but nothing close to that of the top Democrats.
Mr. Romney's supplementary self-funding, a move he has taken each quarter, has appeared not to hurt him with voters in early states, where he is running well, despite low numbers in national polls.
The emphasis on early money, for all the candidates, not only reflects a need to impress the media and political insiders with a concrete benchmark of success. It also shows how the condensed primary schedule for this presidential election has made early money essential.
In previous years, a candidate could do well in the early states and have time to raise enough money to compete in the later contests. Now that is no longer so, and the dash for cash has taken on global proportions.
"That's why we're seeing the push to raise money from expats overseas," says Stephen Medvic, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "Any rock they can look under to get some money, they're looking under it."