Thursday, April 05, 2007

Giving Hillary a run for the money

In the wake of the news that Barack Obama has jolted Hillary Clinton in the fund-raising sweepstakes, and that, by doing so, he has reshaped the ’08 Democratic race, we hereby present the Most Hilarious Spin Award to Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was asked last night by ABC News to assess the stunning fact that Obama, during the first quarter of 2007, apparently raised more money for his primary season campaign than Clinton did for hers – and that he accomplished this feat by raking in small contributions from a pool of donors twice as large as hers. McAuliffe reacted by saying, “Ultimately, forget the money...”

Forget the money? McAuliffe, the master fundraiser of the Clinton era, the guy who once literally wrestled a 260-pound alligator in order to cajole a $15,000 donation out of a Florida Seminole chief, is saying “forget the money?” That’s like Donald Trump losing out a condo deal and declaring “forget real estate.”

The plain truth is that the Clinton campaign has failed its first big test. The early ’07 goal was to blow Obama (and John Edwards) out of the water by demonstrating implacable money mastery. Instead, Obama in particular has served notice that the rookie is fully capable of slugging it out, over the long haul, with the Friends of Bill and the other well-wired inhabitants of Hillaryland. We don’t yet know officially that Obama has outraised Clinton in primary season money, but ABC News, citing inside sources, reported last night that he collected $23 million, and Clinton $20 million. Her campaign has declined to confirm or deny.

The bottom line is that, at least for now, she has lost the right to be considered the preemptive Democratic favorite.

Here are perhaps the most telling statistics: Ninety percent of Obama’s first-quarter money was comprised of donations smaller than $100, and about half of those people gave about $25 each. Grassroots aside, he also drew some large contributions, of course. Overall, he got money from 100,000 people, averaging $250 apiece; Clinton drew from 50,000 people who averaged $520 apiece – with considerable help from her husband.

Translation: Obama is also well positioned to win the money race during the second quarter.

Here’s why: An individual donor can give a candidate up to $2300 for the primary season. Obama’s current pool of givers is twice as large as Clinton’s; their initial donations were half as large as Clinton’s. Therefore, he can tap his folks repeatedly – whereas there is every indication (and we won’t know all the stats until April 15) that far more of Clinton’s initial smaller pool of donors are already “maxed out” at $2300 apiece.

She might recoup, of course, by expanding her pool of donors this spring; on the other hand, some maxed-out Clinton donors could send money to Obama, just to hedge their bets. Either way, the message of this first financial round is clear: A heck of a lot of grassroots Democrats are motivated not merely to find a fresh attractive face and shake up the traditional political paradigm - but also to put the brakes on any Clinton family dynasty. To use the old phrase, “Clinton fatigue” still lingers, particularly among liberals who disliked Bill’s centrist policy calculations. But it goes beyond that.

I’ll explain further by quoting myself. In a newspaper column last month, I wrote: “There are still a lot of Democrats who remember how they were compelled to defend Bill's lies during the Lewinsky affair; who remember that he had promised to run ‘the most ethical administration in history’; who remember how he left office by pardoning a rich tax felon who had donated generously to Clinton causes and whose ex-wife happened to be one of Hillary's pals. These Democrats have no interest in…a Clinton family dynasty. They have wanted to fight the Clintons for a long time.”

Hillary Clinton can still win this fight – in the end, ideas and message trump money, and many observers think that Obama is still too light on substance – but Obama has officially served notice that she will not be able to avoid one.