The presidential campaign took another step forward this week as candidates announced their success at out-fundraising each other. But how helpful are these early reports in gauging presidential potential? Political analyst Mark Halperin explains why, in campaign coverage, the horserace is never far away.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
Time was media critics wrung their hands about how news organizations shunned the policy issues in campaigns for public office and focused instead on the horserace - the tactics, the polls, the attack ad smears and everything but the nitty-gritty of governance.
Well, those were the good old days. In this year's run-up to the primaries, the press is barely even covering the horserace so much as the parimutuel betting on the horserace. Case in point: the release this week by the Hillary Clinton campaign of her quarterly fundraising results. Released on Wednesday, it blew other stories, including Barack Obama's policy statement on Iraq, right out of the water. MALE CORRESPONDANT: Bragging rights this quarter belong to Senator Hillary Clinton. She topped, for the first time this year she topped her rival Barack Obama, 22 million raised for Clinton to Obama's 19 million. MALE CORRESPONDANT: First thing Tuesday morning, the Clinton campaign released its numbers. Twenty-seven million. Wow! FEMALE CORRESPONDANT: Senator Hillary Clinton leads the pack with 27 million dollars. BOB GARFIELD: TV was hardly alone on war chest fixation. The story also led The New York Times. If that's a sad commentary on the state of political journalism to Mark Halperin, senior political analyst and editor-at-large for Time Magazine and political analyst for ABC News, it's more a reflection of media judgments about electability. MARK HALPERIN: Well, I don't know that it's necessarily sad. That's, I know, a prevailing view, and certainly the candidates have to spend a lot of their time raising money. But the money in most cases is not corrupt. It's people making an investment in the candidate who they either want to win or perhaps think is going to win. BOB GARFIELD: Well, how important is the relatively marginal difference between what Barack Obama has raised this quarter and what Hillary Clinton has raised? Does that tell us anything important about what's going to happen in the primaries? MARK HALPERIN: Well, I think the difference between them for the quarter was small. The difference overall for the campaign cycle is small. I think what's important about this number, and I think the press largely covered it this way, was that Senator Clinton is becoming a more imposing frontrunner in a lot of dimensions, in her poll standing, in her endorsements and her political dexterity.
One area where she was behind Barack Obama was raising money. And as his momentum has slowed in other areas, it's now been matched by fundraising. I think as a psychological matter and as an indication of the direction of her campaign going upward, it is important to understand what's going on, to know that Hillary Clinton for the first time in any quarter was able to out-raise Obama. BOB GARFIELD: Now at the same time, we discovered that Ron Paul, the candidate for the Republican nomination, the libertarian with the kind of insurgent campaign, has actually raised quite a bit of money and presumably, therefore, can now be taken more seriously by the punditocracy out there.
But the story was buried inside The New York Times today and inside The Wall Street Journal. Why shouldn't Hillary's progress be relegated to the inside pages as well? MARK HALPERIN: Well, Ron Paul did get a lot of coverage, more than he's gotten probably in the whole campaign. And I think most of the stories have reflected the reason why he's raised money, and it's heartening, which is he's not done it because he's handsome or charismatic. He's done it because he's representing ideas that are unrepresented, for the most part, in the Republican nominating fight.
The reason it doesn't get as much coverage as Senator Clinton is the press tends to divide the candidates between those who they believe can be nominated and elected and those who can't. And if you're on the wrong side of that divide, you have to raise millions more than expected, probably, and light yourself on fire to get a lot of coverage. It's simply a function of the press' limited news hole and desire to give people a sense of who can win and who can't.
I am as guilty as any reporter, and I worry about it and I wonder about it and I wonder ways to make it better. But it seems very unlikely that Ron Paul can be the Republican nominee. BOB GARFIELD: Well, apart from the general question of how obsessed the press should be with money raising, there's the other issue of whether the raw number tells us that much anyway, because, after all, in order to raise, say, 23 million dollars, campaigns have to spend a lot of money, and money raised is not the same as cash on hand.
Don't these stories tend to distort the actual spending power of the war chests in general? MARK HALPERIN: They do. One of the weaknesses of the press coverage is we're so desperate for information that we tend to report whatever the campaigns give us. And, as you say, if they've raised a lot of money they're going to put that figure out, even if they've spent a lot of money both to raise the money in terms of reaching out to people through direct mail or throwing lavish dinner parties, as well as the other number they'll tend to hide will be the cash on hand number. They don't want us to know that. And the press tends to cover that first blush of stories and then covers the trailing information that has to be disclosed later in the month to the Federal Election Commission, with much less prominence.
So, on one level what matters most is how much they can spend on TV ads right before the voting begins. But it's also important to know how much they raised, even if they had to spend a lot to raise it, because, again, how much you raise is a large extent a function on how effectively you're building support.
And that support gets people invested in the campaign makes them more likely not just to vote for you but to help get other people to vote for you. BOB GARFIELD: Finally, it seems that by focusing so much on the fundraising, you know, war chestometer out there, that the press is giving even more opportunity to the spinmeisters of the campaigns to manipulate them with the substance and timing of the coverage. Aren't the media just creating yet more conditions in which they can be played by the campaigns? MARK HALPERIN: The best thing I can say with the press' unhealthy obsession with the fundraising numbers is at least for a day or two it tends to crowd out our unhealthy obsession with the polling numbers. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] MARK HALPERIN: Instant gratification, competitive 24-hour news cycle process, fundraising numbers, poll numbers, new attack ads — all of these things are going to crowd out discussions of policy. And the biggest worry to have is there are a limited number of days left for voters to find the best president. And often, looking for that kind of data, for an energetic, discerning voter, is difficult when, day after day, you go from fundraising numbers to polling numbers to attacks to GATTs. It's a real problem. And I wish, I wish we lived in a world where big establishment news organizations, and smaller ones, were as interested in policy as they are in the minutia. And I wish we lived in a world where voters and viewers and readers and listeners were so interested in policy that they flocked to the coverage of news organizations that cover that policy.
I think there's more of an appetite for that than the press generally gives people. But I don't think there's much more of an appetite. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark. As always, thank you so much. MARK HALPERIN: Great to talk to you Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Mark Halperin is senior political analyst for ABC News. His forthcoming book is titled The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President.