The Pointless Money Race

Candidates have until tomorrow to release their quarterly fundraising totals, which means that we are being treated today to another round of pontifications over the increasingly-pointless money race and the expectations game appurtenant thereto. Of the major candidates who are still in the race, the public posturing has already begun:

Aided by two confident debate performances, Republican Carly Fiorina quadrupled her fundraising over the summer, according to figures released Tuesday by her campaign.

The $6.8 million Fiorina collected between July 1 and Sept. 30 puts her in third place among the Republican presidential candidates who have released their fundraising totals so far.

The summer’s fundraising underscores the ways in which insurgent candidates have roiled the Republican primary. A political novice, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, collected a whopping $20 million during the three-month period to top the field. Texas [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], first-term lawmaker who routinely rails against his party’s leadership, was in second place at $12.2 million.

Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, outraised another sitting senator, Florida’s [mc_name name=’Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’R000595′ ], who saw his fundraising drop over the summer. He collected about $6 million during the July-to-September quarter.

This would all have been eminently important information 15 or 20 years ago, but within the primary context, direct fundraising appears to be an increasingly obsolete measure of candidate performance. After all, no one has or can expect to raise more money this year than Jeb Bush, who is currently in the midst of total freefall from contention; likewise Scott Walker’s early strong fundraising efforts did not save him from an early exit from the race.

Moreover, the chaotic experience of last cycle shows that candidates who catch fire with the voting public can cause surprising damage with almost no money at all. Rick Santorum hadn’t raised enough money in direct contributions to rub two nickels together, but when he became the unlikely primary challenger to Mitt Romney, Foster Friess was able to swoop in with basically infinite funding to Santorum’s Super PAC, and Santorum had all he needed to keep his campaign operation afloat.

The reality of the current Republican mood is that traditional politics are not going to work this year. Building a conventional “ground game” is increasingly irrelevant as people are more and more hesitant to pick up their home phones (or have home phones) for phone bankers or to answer the door for door knockers. Blanketing the airwaves with attack ads likewise reaches the point of diminishing returns much more quickly than it used to, both as a result of creeping voter cynicism, and as a result of the decline in consumption of both broadcast and cable television (as a result of internet streaming).

Republican primary voters are increasingly likely to discount traditional means of communication and make their own independent evaluation of candidates based on increasingly idiosyncratic criteria, which means that the money game in this Republican primary is less important than it ever has been – even though the money figures raised are likely to be as high or higher than ever.

The two salient pieces of information from the early fundraising figures already released. The first are the spending figures – which show that Rubio and Fiorina are both wisely playing the long game and waiting for the inevitable Trump flameout to play their hands. [mc_name name=’Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’P000603′ ], on the other hand, continues to be the most disappointing candidate remaining in the field; even though he is spending $2 for every $1 he raises, he continues to slide backwards and nothing he is doing is reversing his direction. It’s no wonder that Paul is clearly giving the impression of a man who has given up.

The second is the fact that Jeb Bush has not released his fundraising numbers yet. For a guy whose sole appeal has been his ability to raise tons of cash, this can probably only mean that his fundraising numbers will be bad, or at least below expectations. For a campaign that was built to front-run, one wonders how much more bad news the Jeb campaign can take before it folds up shop.