Now that the Democrats are raking in more campaign dough than the Republicans, it will be interesting to see if the media demonize the role of money in politics as they have in past elections when the GOP was winning the contributions race.
The storyline used to be that money corrupts politics, giving big donors too much influence over who ultimately gets elected. But with Democrats raising $3 for every $2 that went to Republicans in the last federal campaign reporting cycle, the press stories have taken on a new slant.
Suddenly, Sen. Barack Obama is a man of the people for having raised $32.5 million, while Sen. John McCain is a loser because he only took in $11 million. The Washington Post reported that Obama's 258,000 donors since January represent more than the combined donor base of the major Republican candidates, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and McCain. But the comparison is meaningless since Obama isn't running against any of these guys -- at least not yet.
This media about-face is most visible in coverage of the McCain campaign. News stories abounded this week about McCain's money troubles. What once the media treated as a virtue -- namely, McCain's reluctance to hustle for campaign cash -- has suddenly been turned into his Achilles' heel.
There's no question money is an important indicator of a candidate's viability; that's why the presidential money race is often called the first primary. But money isn't everything. Most candidates spend too much money hiring professional campaign consultants, who demand hefty fees and rarely produce what's promised. Sure, money buys exposure through television and radio ads, but ads are never enough to win an election.
Candidates win or lose based on whether they resonate with the voters. George W. Bush won the last election because Americans were concerned about terrorism. Voters believed they would be safer with Bush in the White House than Sen. John Kerry. Bill Clinton won the presidency because voters thought George H. W. Bush had lost touch with the people. No campaign ad could erase the memories of the elder Bush looking at his watch during the presidential debates, as if he was bored with the whole process, or his amazement at grocery scanning machines, which made him look clueless about ordinary Americans' lives. Fair or unfair, these snap judgments stick.
At this point in the election, most Americans haven't yet formed opinions of many of the candidates. Hillary Clinton is the exception. People either love her or hate her, and the money she's amassed -- cumulatively, still more than anyone else -- will only go so far in turning skeptics into fans.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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