Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mitt should heed the old Beatles adage

Full disclosure: Money stories bore me. Four times a year, when the candidates file their quarterly earnings, we in the political press examine the books, read the tea leaves, and tend to validate those who have put big bucks in their coffers. We do this - it's happening now with Mitt Romney - even though history has repeatedly taught us that the strength of a candidate can’t necessarily be measured by the weight of the candidate’s war chest.

For instance, Howard Dean titillated everybody during the second half of 2003, by demonstrating the money-raising potential of the netroots; widely overlooked, however, was the fact that he was spending it almost as fast as it was coming in (in campaign parlance, he had a high “burn rate”), to the point that he was actually forced to cut costs before the Democratic primaries had even commenced. (And we all know what happened to Dean in Iowa, although lack of money was not the only factor.)

Eight years before Dean, there was also Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican senator, who boasted in 1995 that he would raise $20 million in “easy money” by Jan. 1 of 1996 (a hefty sum at the time), thereby powering his ‘96 presidential bid; he indeed met his goal, but that didn't impress the GOP primary voters. I remember him limping into Iowa, after getting thrashed in Louisiana by Pat Buchanan, and staging a rally for himself at the State Capitol (a school band played pop tunes like "Louie Louie"), and claiming that all was well - but the problem was that conservative Christian Iowa voters, who didn't care about his "easy money," felt that he was too focused on economic conservatism and insufficiently focused on Christian values. So he was thrashed again, and quit the race, canceling all the hotel rooms that his staff had reserved at the Marriott in Nashua, New Hampshire. (I know this, because I was on the hotel waiting list.)

But my favorite money lesson concerns another Texan, former governor John Connally, who raised and spent a daunting $12 million for his 1980 presidential bid – and wound up winning one delegate, Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas, perhaps the priciest investment in modern political history.

So now let's return to the present day. In the wake of the early reports on the presidential candidates’ first-quarter ’07 earnings, we don’t yet know whether Hillary Clinton’s $26-million intake (aided by her husband’s peripatetic efforts) is as impressive as it seems, because we don’t yet know what she has spent – and we probably won’t know until all the details are officially released by the feds on April 15. Nor do we yet know what share of that money is earmarked for the primaries, and what share would be reserved for the general election. But in her case, at least, we can say that her record haul (the largest ever for a quarterly period, at least until we hear officially from Barack Obama) roughly parallels her poll status as the current favorite of likely Democratic primary voters.

Not so with Mitt Romney. In the end, he might prove to be a classic example of the old Beatles adage that money can’t buy you love. And that we political observers need to be skeptical about mistaking gross revenue for candidate viability.

In the case of the GOP candidate from Massachusetts, the incongruities between voter support and donor support are jarring. In Republican polls, he is barely a blip on the radar - according to Gallup, he’s the favorite of three percent of likely GOP primary voters, down there with Sam Brownback, and trailing a non-candidate with high negatives (Newt Gingrich) as well as a TV actor (Fred Thompson) – yet, despite all that, he is reporting the largest first-quarter haul in the Republican field, $20 million, dwarfing the efforts of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom are household names with far better poll numbers.

So how can a guy do so well at the bank during the first three months of 2007, after spending most of his time fighting off (valid) charges that he is a transparent flip-flopper, and drifting south in the polls as a result? Is donor support a better gauge of the health of his candidacy?

The answer to the latter is, not necessarily. Here’s the fine print about his $20 million: A lot of it stems from his success in plucking the low-hanging fruit. Romney worked his Bain Capital connections (he founded that private equity firm, and he’d made a lot of money for his investors), as well as his Mormon connections (there are some affluent folks in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). It can certainly be argued that Romney, by raising money effectively, is already demonstrating the organizational skills that would be invaluable as chief executive, but he arguably would not have been this effective if he wasn’t so personally wealthy. He invested $2.3 million of his own money (he has never released his total net worth), just to set up his technologically proficient fund-raising machine. None of his rivals can compete with that.

Also, we don’t yet know the composition of that $20 million. One way to measure candidate viability is to note the number of small contributions; a large number would suggest that a candidate has broad backing. It would also be valuable to know whether a large share of that $20 million came from people who have already “maxed out,” by each giving the maximum $2,300 permitted by federal law for a primary campaign. Small contributors can give again; maxed-out contributors can’t. But Romney has yet to release any of this information.

Nor do we yet know anything about Romney’s “burn rate.” Raising a lot of money is not nearly so impressive if you’ve spend an inordinate amount just to raise it – or if you’re already spending it heavily on the campaign trail. Indeed, there are signs that Romney is doing the latter, because, unlike his GOP rivals, he has already been running TV ads in at least three early primary states, with scant payoff at the polls. The April 15 reports, filed with the Federal Elections Commission, will fill in some of these blanks.

And the aforementioned Mormon factor is worth more attention. There’s a lot of money in that community, and it can help buoy Romney during this critical pre-primary phase. I spoke this morning with Larry Sabato, the uber-political analyst, who spent last November as a guest professor in Utah. He said this: “For Romney, the upside of Mormonism is that they are very well-organized and they are accustomed to giving. It’s part of their tithing tradition. They are hard-working and success-oriented, and they are also prominent in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Colorado. And the potential for Romney in Utah is obvious. It’s important to remember that it’s known as the Beehive State.”

The potential downside, however, is just as obvious. That same Mormon money which is boosting Romney today might prove to be a liability next winter, when the GOP primary voters cast their ballots. In an early crucial state such as South Carolina, it’s easy to imagine that some evangelical Christian voters, who already view Mormonism as a cult religion, might not feel any warmer toward Romney if they think he has been heavily bankrolled by adherents of the Mormon church.

This is why I’d prefer to stay away from money commentary (although I might threaten to do another quite soon, when Obama surfaces). There are too many caveats among the tea leaves. The bottom line is, money can put you in play, but you can still get booed off the field. Just ask President Steve Forbes.