WASHINGTON — The Democratic convention won't be held for more than a year, but the party's nominee for the 2004 presidential race is being selected right now, in a handful of living rooms and salons in Georgetown, the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Hollywood. That's where the "wealth primary" -- the quadrennial dance between fund-raisers and fat cats -- is taking place, a competition that determines who will be anointed the party's front-runner and what issues will make it onto the table.
The public may be unaware of the process, but campaigns take the wealth primary very seriously. And they should. In every presidential race since 1984, the candidate who had raised the most money by the end of the year prior to the election -- before a single primary vote had been cast -- went on to win his party's nomination.
Just listen to one top Democratic fund-raiser with extensive experience in presidential campaigns, who spoke recently on condition of anonymity: "The only focus in presidential campaigns right now is how to get $20 million to $25 million raised by the fall." That's the equivalent of raising $60,000 a day, seven days a week, for all of 2003.
Meanwhile, the front-loading of the primary calendar -- with many big states expected to hold elections just a few weeks after the traditional first battlegrounds of Iowa and New Hampshire -- is forcing campaigns to put their bankrolls together sooner. Candidates know the press is going to pay close attention to only the leading money-raisers, and if they can't get media attention, they can't raise additional money.
The first turning point in this invisible dash for cash has just occurred, and the "votes" have been tallied. On April 15, the candidates reported to the Federal Election Commission on their fund-raising for the first quarter of 2003. Here's how much they've raised so far, according to their filings:
* North Carolina Sen. John Edwards: $7.4 million (plus $1.4 million sitting in his Senate campaign account that he has not yet tapped)
* Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry: $7 million (plus $3 million transferred from his Senate account)
* Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt: $3.5 million (plus $2.4 million transferred from his House account)
* Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman: $3 million
* Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean: $2.6 million
* Florida Sen. Bob Graham: $1.1 million
* Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich: $180,000
* Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun: $72,000
"This is when the winnowing of the field will start," our Democratic fund-raiser friend reports. "It's assumed that serious candidates will need to have raised $6 million to $10 million at this point." By that yardstick, Lieberman and Graham might be in trouble, though both say their totals were hindered by late starts and claim they will soon close the gap. Dean is also still a long shot, if money is the measure.
Most important to candidates' success in this system is how they recruit and mobilize donors who "bundle" contributions -- people who can pull together large stacks of $2,000 checks from their co-workers, friends and family. For example, in 2000, the top donor to President Bush's presidential campaign was MBNA Corp., a Delaware-based bank. MBNA's executives, their families and its political action committee gave him nearly $240,700. Though MBNA Chief Executive Charles Cawley and his wife, Julie, personally gave a total of $2,000 to Bush (the limit then was $1,000 per contributor per election), Cawley was a Bush "Pioneer," one of the volunteer fund-raisers who pulled in at least $100,000 apiece for the campaign. In 2004, Bush operatives are hinting that the bar for ranking as a Pioneer will be raised to $200,000 or higher.
So far, each of the top four Democratic candidates has raised more than 60% of his cash from those giving $2,000 or more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's why they're spending so much time in New York, Los Angeles and Washington -- donors from just 10 ZIP Codes in those three cities supplied more than $122.5 million to federal campaigns last year. Donors at the lower end of the spectrum count for little in this process. And the 96% of Americans who never give a campaign contribution count for nothing at all. No wonder most voters show less interest with each election as the money raised and spent continues to rise.