At about this time every three months, we have to endure the typical quarterly fundraising roundups. This one from The Hill shows the problem with the genre, headlined "FEC reports show Crist the man to beat in Florida." This in response to Crist raising an eye-popping $4.3 million in the 2nd quarter, against Marco Rubio's $340,000.
Crist may be a slight favorite in the Republican primary, but money will have nothing to do with why.
I bang this drum pretty often, but ask presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney how far early, high dollar bundler support got them. Or Virginia Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe on how much a 10-to-1 cash advantage is worth.
Underfunded candidates like Rubio don't need more money now. The need an argument. A bulletproof argument from a plausible candidate is worth tens of millions of dollars in any primary, overwhelming a financial advantage of any magnitude. While frontrunners confuse high-dollar fundraising for actual grassroots support, a conclusion that headlines like The Hill's do nothing to discourage, smart underdogs would do right to focus on building an impregnable message advantage. Because that's the part that counts for 90% in any electoral victory.
John McCain's campaign was defunct and broke at this point in the race, without money to pay a pollster. Mike Huckabee had no money. Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani spent $60 million plus to win a single delegate, attending fundraisers when he should have been in New Hampshire. A leading Republican strategist recently told me that he wonders whether money doesn't wind up making our campaigns worse while the lack of money makes them better and more focused. Look at McCain with no money, vs. McCain with money (pre-implosion and general election).
Crist's fundraising aside, he's still a relatively popular governor with 100% name ID, and so still the "man to beat." But fundraising trophies don't make it so. Complacency is his biggest enemy.
Crist's campaign is the antithesis of Rebuildness. Of Crist's $4.3 million how much was online? How much came from donations of $100 or less? How many people have signed up on his e-mail list since he announced? How many of his supporters would crawl on glass to see him win?
In running a campaign, that latter kind of support is the kind I want, and I think Rubio has it.
And not only that, but he's a particularly strong and plausible kind of grassroots candidate. He's no Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul. Had Crist not stepped in, he'd be considered a top recruit and a rising star. Rubio would easily beat Kendrick Meek in a general election.
We have two uniquely talented people running for Senate in a seat we will probably hold in Florida. Instead of elbowing one aside, we should be grabbing the popcorn and watching this one go the distance.
The primary will be close. Among voters who know both, Crist and Rubio are tied. Crist's money will not buy him more name ID or goodwill; only his bully pulpit as Governor can do that, and he's surrendering it. Meanwhile, Rubio's talents as a candidate, his crossover potential, and his appeal to grassroots conservatives mean he has nowhere to go but up. I still think Crist narrowly wins absent a massive screwup, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it. Recent elections have not been kind to moneyed "frontrunners."