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Does the Presidential Candidate with the Most Money Usually Become the Party Nominee?

Benjamin Harrison famously ascribed his election as president of the United States to Providence. Boss Matt Quay would have none of it. "Think of the man," he snarled. "He ought to know that Providence hadn't a damn thing to do with it." What had? It was money. Harrison never knew, he added, "how close a number of men were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him President." Another boss, Mark Hanna, after whom Karl Rove famously modeled himself, put the matter more bluntly. "There are two things that are important in politics," he said. "The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is."

That was a century ago. Today money is probably even more important in politics. Now that the bosses have disappeared the only way candidates to state and national offices can reach most voters is by running expensive commercials on television.

Presidential politics is of course the most expensive kind of all. The conventional wisdom is that the presidential candidate who has raised the most money in the year before the primaries will invariably become his or her party's nominee. How much truth is there in this adage?

In the seven elections since 1980 the candidate who has won the so-called "money primary" has gone on to win their party's nomination in all but two elections. The exceptions were the handsome John Connally and the energetic Howard Dean.

In 1980 Connally, Richard Nixon's scandal-tainted treasury secretary, raised eleven million dollars, more money than any of the other candidates, including Ronald Reagan. Connally, however, received just one delegate. (Jeffrey Hart, a National Review editor, joked that he would have voted for Connally for half the sum.)

In 2004 Howard Dean, the first candidate to tap the Internet for massive campaign donations, surprised the pundits by out-raising the presumed front runners in the second quarter of 2003, pulling in seven and a half million dollars. John Kerry by contrast raised just six million and the other candidates even less. On the eve of the Iowa caucus in 2004 Dean, having raised some twenty-five million dollars, was flush in money while Kerry's campaign was broke. To remain competitive Kerry had donated six million dollars of his own money by mortgaging his and his wife's Boston townhouse. "It was a big roll of the dice," he said later, though he didn't have to worry much about money given the extent of his wife's fortune.

All of the other candidates since 1980 handily beat their competitors in the money primary with just one exception. In 1996 Texas Sen. Phil Gramm raised almost as much money as Bob Dole. Gramm, echoing boss Mark Hanna, famously said, "I have the most reliable friend in politics and that is ready money." But it wasn't enough. Dole went on to win the nomination after the voters took a close look at Gramm and decided he wasn't presidential, no matter his millions.

One other election is worth mentioning. In 1988 Pat Robertson, ably playing on his support among religious conservatives, raised $16,406,000 by January 1 of the election year, an impressive showing. George H.W. Bush raised more, $19,058,000, but in the first month of 1988 Robertson succeeded in outraising Bush. By the end of the month Robertson reported raising an additional $13,291,000 compared to Bush's $7,233,000. Some political scientists therefore claim that Robertson actually beat Bush in the money primnary. They have a point. In total Robertson raised $29,697,000 by the end of January 1988 to Bush's $26,291,000.

In the 2008 campaign there has been no clear winner thus far in the money primary. In the Democratic race both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been able at various times to crow about their money-raising prowess, Obama winning the money primary in the second quarter of this year and Clinton the third quarter. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have led the pack. Like Clinton and Obama each has been able to claim at various times that they were winning the money primary. In he third quarter Romney raised eleven million dollars to Giuliani's ten million. Romney has supplemented his campaign accounts by dipping into his personal fortune, donating more than eight million dollars to himself in the last quarter alone. All year long Clinton and Giuliani have led in the polls.

Update 2-26-12

In retrospect, the 2008 election offered solace to both proponents and detractors of the belief in the money primary.  Detractors will note that Hillary Clinton, the winner of the money primary at the end of 2007, did not in fact become the party's nominee.  But she was only ahead of Obama by a small amount.  She'd raised $107 million to his $102 million.  Within a few months of 2008 the Clinton campaign was raising far less than Obama's.  

As for the Republicans, Rudy Giuliani was the winner of the money primary at the end of 2007, with Mitt Romney not far behind.  John McCain, who actually won the GOP nomination, was a laggard.  Giuliani had raised $59 million, Romney $52 million.  McCain was back in the pack, just slightly ahead of Ron Paul.  

It should be noted that much of Romney's money came from his own pocket, distorting the money primary.  In the 2008 election he donated $42 million to his own campaign (some in 2007).  Should his donations count in any assessment of the money primary?  The money buys the same number of TV commercials whether it's from the candidate himself or someone else. But a candidate's own spending distorts the calculations.  What the money primary is supposed to be measuring is the ability of a candidate to raise large sums from supporters.