Washington has been abuzz the last few days about the $7.4 million Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) raised for his presidential campaign in the first three months of this year. Granted, it's an impressive number and a good start to the campaign. But it's nowhere close to the amount of money the party's eventual nominee will need to raise to have a good chance of defeating President Bush next year.
Consider this: At the same point in the 1999 campaign, Vice President Al Gore had raised $8.9 million. That's $1.5 million more than Edwards has now. Gore was seen as the front-runner, and he was unlikely to have much primary competition, which meant that he didn't face the prospect of having to spend his money early in the campaign. Compare that with this campaign: Edwards isn't considered the front-runner (a recent Franklin Pierce College poll of likely New Hampshire Democratic voters showed him with just 2 percent support) and there are 10 candidates who have expressed interest in running. Because of the crowded field, Democratic hopefuls in 2004 are going to have to spend a lot more money to win the primary, which means whoever wins will have to replenish his or her funds next year by raising even more money for the general election. Plus there's the fact that party donors will be spreading their wealth among 10 candidates instead of a single one, meaning each aspirant will have a smaller amount to use for his or her campaign.
Gore was as close as you can get to being an incumbent without actually being an incumbent. It still wasn't enough. Bush will have the backdrop of the Oval Office to remind everyone that he's in power. Edwards and the other Democrats are going to have to do something Democrats haven't been good at doing lately -- offering voters an alternative to Bush rather than just criticizing him -- if they want to convince donors that they are for real.
Fundraising totals are still trickling out, but as of noon on Thursday, former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) announced he had raised $2.6 million, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) had taken in $7 million and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) had brought in $3 million. That's an especially paltry number for Lieberman, considering he was Gore's running mate in 2000.
Of course, fundraising for 2004 will be harder than fundraising was in 2000. Al Gore was able to raise soft money; John Edwards is not. On the other hand, Edwards can get twice as much money from individuals (the individual contribution limit was raised from $1,000 to $2,000). And Edwards' total is almost the same as Bush's was four years ago. Still, this early on, Bush was just warming up in terms of raising money. By the end of the 2000 campaign, Bush had raised $193 million to Gore's $132 million. While donors are much more willing to give money to a party's nominee -- contributors like to be associated with a winner -- and will probably fork over more later, Edwards' $7.4 million and Kerry's $7 million start to look like drops in the bucket when you think about how far they have to go.
That's not to say that money is everything in politics, although that's what then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) thought when he raised $13.5 million in the first three months of 1995. (Gramm didn't even make it to the New Hampshire primary.) But for these 10 Democratic Party hopefuls, money is going to be very important in helping them get their messages out early, so they can differentiate themselves and stand out in some way. And when the winner has secured the party's nomination in February or March of next year, he or she is going to have to have enough money to pound away at Bush -- and promote a distinctly Democratic agenda -- for eight or nine months. No easy task, that.
Edwards' spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told the Winston-Salem Journal that her boss' fundraising total "is very good. . . . It shows that we can raise enough to run a full-scale campaign. He's proven the ability to convince people to support him." He's had a good three months; I'll give him that. The question is, can he keep it up for another year and a half? That's the thing that really matters.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.