There's a school of political thinking that he (or she) with the most money wins -- especially in primaries. There's another that says she with the best machine is destined to win. Sure, like most political theories, both have been proven wrong so many times as to be useless, but they're hard ones to shake.
There was a time, of course, the candidate with the most money had the best machine. The candidate was more likely to win because having the most money meant having the strongest organization and the most support within the party. Money didn't just pay for marketing messages. Money was, in its own way, one of the marketing messages, loudly proclaiming, "This Candidate Has Been Chosen." Or, better yet, "This Candidate Is Inevitable."
Now, of course, having the most money could mean you're simply a self-funded gajillionaire or that your grass-roots network is the most effective. But Steve Forbes and Howard Dean are shining examples of how far those assets will get you.
While Obama isn't basing his campaign on blog support, alternative media and the white-hot anger of disillusioned left-wingers, he is taking a more grass-roots approach to fundraising. According to the Bloomberg story, "Obama, 45, is concentrating on building a large base of smaller donors who may keep giving rather than big contributors who give the maximum allowed in one check. So far, he has received money from more than 258,000 donors ... Clinton, 59, had about 60,000 donors in the first quarter; she hasn't released her latest figure."
And unlike outsider and renegade Howard Dean, Obama is an established politician -- and from Illinois, no less. It's one thing to say you grew up in a log cabin and walked six miles to school. It's quite another to say you made your political bones on the mean streets of Chicago -- and did so without managing to be corrupted (though the Chicago media is trying to flip over some stones on that story). He's reasonable, calm and attractive. He would represent a major first in U.S. politics. Obama can often sound too much like a boring college professor. But unlike George W. Bush and any other numbers of politicians, his public-speaking appearances don't cause the listener to wince while anticipating the next mangling of a phrase or misuse of a word. And unlike some on the left, he doesn't sound as if he's wagging his finger and telling you to take your medicine. Finally, and this is something important for those running for the highest office in the land (I'm talking to Al Gore and John Kerry, here), he's optimistic.
But he's not Hillary Clinton. There are a million reasons given every day why Hillary Clinton can't win the Democratic primary. She's wooden. She's stiff. She's humorless. She's a policy wonk. Americans suffer from Clinton fatigue. She's polarizing. She'll motivate the Republican base. Her voting record is a liability. She voted for the war. She's a woman.
Yet the polls show her winning. And while she came in second to Obama in the fundraising race, she's not exactly hurting for cash. On top of that, as stiff as she is, she's been doing a bang-up job with her marketing (most notably by poking fun at herself and utilizing Bill). But more importantly, she's got the infamous Clinton machine behind her. The Clinton machine is like something out of a sci-fi film. It devours everything in its path. It's impervious to financial scandals and bimbo eruptions. Even spells involving gall of Newt (Gingrich) can't bring it down.
And it's running right now at about one-quarter power. When it kicks into high gear, those in its way had better watch out. If Obama, as seems likely, is deemed the one major obstacle, Antoin Rezko will become a household name and the land will be filled with attack ads and insinuations.
Right now the Democratic field is shadow-boxing, but once it's winnowed down to two, look for bare-knuckle brawling.
And the winner will be? Who knows? Two definite winners will be the news outlets covering the fight as well as the media outlets carrying the ads. And those in the primary states will feel like the losers as every available bit of advertising real estate will be given over to the campaigns.
If I were the betting sort, I'd put my money on machine. But I've been wrong too many times before to put much stock in my own guesses.
Ultimately, the American voter is unpredictable. And so is Al Gore.