The fraudulent "invisible primary" of 2004.

The fraudulent "invisible primary" of 2004.

The fraudulent "invisible primary" of 2004.

Politics and policy.
April 22 2003 6:45 PM

The Illogical Primary

The fraudulent "invisible primary" of 2004.

While you were watching the war in Iraq, the 2004 presidential race turned upside down. "The first results are in from the so-called 'invisible' primary election among Democratic candidates … and there is a surprise winner," announced the London Financial Times. "John Edwards, the North Carolina senator, outpolled his rivals in the unseemly but crucial contest for cash raised in the first quarter of 2003." USA Today agreed: "Dems' fundraising race has surprise leader; Edwards edges Kerry." "Kerry Lags Edwards in Fund-Raising," declared the Los Angeles Times. "Kerry Shaded by Edwards in Fundraising; Reports Fuel Reassessment," proclaimed the Washington Post.

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You probably didn't vote in this primary. You probably didn't even know it was going on. And you probably still don't know how it works, even though history suggests it will decide the nominees in the 2004 election. So let's make the "invisible" primary visible. Is it a good way to choose a presidential nominee? If not, who's running it, and how?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

One rationale for ranking the candidates on the basis of early fund raising is that it's democratic. The more people you persuade, the more checks you get. The more your supporters like you, the bigger the checks. Edwards' haul shows "his ability to connect with voters," his spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, told the New York Times. In another interview, Palmieri argued, "He's proven the ability to convince people to support him."

But democracy isn't one dollar, one vote. That's capitalism. Democracy is one person, one vote. By that standard, if you count donors as voters, Edwards trails two other candidates. Edwards claims "nearly 10,000" donors. Howard Dean claims 12,000; John Kerry claims 15,000. The reason Edwards got more money than Dean or Kerry did is that his checks, though fewer, were bigger.

Moreover, donors are only a small subset of voters. Edwards hasn't "connected with" or "convinced" many voters to support him in the early primary states, much less nationwide. In the latest national, Iowa, and New Hampshire polls, he's way back in the pack. Indeed, his campaign is using his fund-raising success to dismiss such polls. "These numbers are very significant," Palmieri told the New YorkDaily News, referring to the financial numbers. "There has been lots of ridiculous speculation about who's ahead and who isn't in the polls. Absent a big [fund-raising] number behind your name, it doesn't mean a lot."

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Many operatives and reporters have bought Edwards' spin that his donations from the South, West, and Midwest show broad appeal. "This demonstrates that he's got a broad reach across the country," said Al Gore's 2000 campaign manager, Donna Brazile. "Edwards' early lead in the money race is testament again to the power of the southern strategy for the Democratic party," said the Financial Times. But if you look at Edwards' money occupationally rather than geographically, his ostensible appeal narrows. Most of that heartland money came from lawyers—between 55 percent and 63 percent of it, depending on whether you count lawyers' families. That means Edwards raised only about $3 million from non-lawyers, far behind Kerry and not much better than Dick Gephardt or Joe Lieberman.

Another rationale for the money primary is that it's "a means of measuring the campaigns' effectiveness," in the words of the Associated Press. Palmieri told Reuters that Edwards "is an incredibly hard worker, incredibly disciplined, and well-organized, and this is a measurement of how effective a candidate he is." But according to Reuters, Edwards "concentrated on fund raising after entering the race on Jan. 2 and participated in fewer public campaign events" than other candidates did. The Post reports that he attended 175 fund-raising events in the first 90 days of 2003. That's nearly two events per day, often hours away in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Montgomery, Ala. Those are hours Edwards couldn't spend working in his office or meeting ordinary people. Is that a measure of his effectiveness—or of his priorities?

A third rationale is that the candidate with the most money is best equipped to beat the other party. But Edwards isn't the candidate with the most money. Kerry is. Edwards' latest Federal Election Commission report lists $5.7 million in cash on hand, after expenses. Kerry's lists $8 million, thanks to money raised or transferred prior to this year. If you compare the total raised by each candidate since November, Kerry collected $7.5 million to Edwards' $7.4 million. And that's assuming Kerry stands by his pledge not to tap his wife's $550 million fortune, which would blow the rest of the field out the water.

Contributions in the amount of $2,000—the new maximum established this year by McCain-Feingold—constituted $4.8 million of Edwards' total and $3.9 million of Kerry's. If the maximum had remained where it was last year—$1,000—Edwards' tally would have dropped by $2.4 million, while Kerry's would have dropped by $1.95 million, leaving Kerry in the lead. The Post calculates that Edwards would have lost $3 million to Kerry's $2.5 million, but the net result is the same. Kerry's prostate surgery reportedly cost him two weeks of campaigning. At his fund-raising pace of $500,000 per week, just one of those weeks would have put him ahead of Edwards. According to the Post, Kerry has built a better direct-mail database for future mining. And with a lower average contribution—roughly $470 to $740—Kerry's higher rate of matching funds could make his first-quarter total worth more than Edwards' when all is said and done.

So if Edwards' financial report doesn't show he's more popular, more effective, or better armed than Kerry, why should it overturn the race? Because it has given Edwards "a bump to rise above the crowd" (GOP consultant Scott Reed), "raised his standing" (Post), "pumped new momentum into his presidential effort" (Roll Call), helped "vault him into the major league" (Hartford Courant) and "reposition him back in the top tier" (Brazile). It has "dimmed" Kerry's image (Charlie Cook) and "created a new political prism through which the campaigns are viewed, burnishing the image of some candidates while highlighting weaknesses of others" (AP). Bump? Pump? Vault? Dim? Prism? Burnish? Highlight? Weird metaphors like these are always a sign that the article you're reading has stopped explaining and begun evading. USA Today says Edwards' impressive financial report could "quiet doubts about his qualifications." Really? I didn't know doubts could be quieted. I thought they had to be resolved.

Who's the culprit beneath all this metaphorical muck? The people who write it. Edwards' showing "might slow that tendency" of "the party and the media" to view Kerry as the front-runner, says the Los Angeles Times. Why? Because early FEC reports "are considered an important benchmark, eyed closely by political insiders as one of the first empirical measures of a candidate's viability." Cook agrees: "Insiders will be very impressed." So does Palmieri: "Money begets money, and it's proving the vitality of your campaign to other potential supporters and to the media, frankly, and to voters." Media. Insiders. Us. We don't know through which prism to view the campaign. We don't dare say who's qualified. It's all so complicated. Just give us a number, and we'll keep score.