For the balance of this year, when no real votes will be cast, political analysts will obsess over the fund-raising totals of the presidential candidates. There is a very good reason for this.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has published quarterly fund-raising data for the year preceding a presidential election since 1979. In the six presidential elections for which the Democratic nomination was contested (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004), the candidate who raised the most money during the preceding year eventually captured the Democratic nomination. Beginning with the 1980 election, Republicans have contested five presidential nominations (1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000); and the candidate who raised the most money in the preceding year has gained the presidential nomination four times.
For Republicans, 1980 was the only year the party’s biggest fund-raiser the year before did not win the nomination. According to the FEC, John Connally, a former Texas governor (and a former Democrat), raised $9 million in 1979. That was nearly $2 million (27 percent) more than the $7.1 million collected by eventual nominee, Ronald Reagan. Mr. Connally finished a distant fourth in the straw poll among Republican-caucus attendees in Iowa, who surprisingly gave a plurality of their support to George H.W. Bush. Mr. Reagan obliterated Mr. Bush by 27 points in the New Hampshire primary, and Mr. Connally withdrew after South Carolina voters rejected his protectionist platform.
Ever since then, the top GOP fund-raiser during the year preceding the election captured the Republican nomination. In 1987, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush raised $18.7 million, while televangelist Pat Robertson raised $16.1 million and then-Sen. Bob Dole collected $14.1 million. After finishing a disappointing third in Iowa behind Messrs. Dole and Robertson, Mr. Bush won the New Hampshire primary and eventually the nomination. In 1992, after raising $10 million in 1991 compared to $700,000 by challenger Patrick Buchanan, Mr. Bush easily won the nomination following a brief scare in New Hampshire, where Mr. Buchanan won nearly 40 percent of the vote.
Mr. Dole raised $24.6 million in 1995, nearly $5 million more than the $20.1 million collected by Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who dropped out after finishing fifth in Iowa. Mr. Buchanan, who raised $7.2 million in 1995, finished a strong second in Iowa and won New Hampshire, but Mr. Dole became the nominee after a strong recovery following New Hampshire. After Sen. John McCain (who raised $15.5 million in 1999) crushed (49-30) then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (who raised $67.6 million in 1999) in the 2000 New Hampshire primary, Mr. Bush recovered and won the nomination.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry became the only Democrat since the FEC began reporting quarterly data in 1979 to win his party’s nomination after failing to win the money primary the year before. In 2003, Howard Dean collected $41 million, compared to the $25.1 million raised by Mr. Kerry, who crushed the heavily favored Mr. Dean by 20 points in Iowa on his way to the nomination.
Mr. Kerry is the Democratic exception. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter raised $5.7 million, which was $2 million more than challenger Ted Kennedy collected. Mr. Kennedy was vanquished by the president’s Rose Garden strategy during the Iranian hostage crisis. In 1983, former Vice President Walter Mondale raised $9.7 million, and he needed every dime to defeat a strong challenge from Sen. Gary Hart, who raised less than $2 million in 1983. The $10.6 million raised in 1987 by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was enough to bankroll his eventual nomination; it was also 80 percent more than Richard Gephardt collected in 1987. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the 1992 Democratic nomination after raising $3.3 million in 1991, 50 percent higher than the second-place fund-raiser. In 1999, then-Vice President Al Gore barely won the money primary over former Sen. Bill Bradley before winning the nomination the next year.