The Campaign Spot

Hillary, Vilsack Learn The Value of Waiting to Declare Your Candidacy

I read two really interesting things this weekend. First, short details about Tom Vilsack, the first candidate to withdraw: He had 50 staffers in his Iowa headquarters, and had raised $1.1 million from Nov. 9 to Jan. 31, according to campaign finance reports, he had spent all but $396,000. (So he spent about $700,000 in three months? On what, air fare to New York City for the Daily Show?)


Second, from a reader of Mickey Kaus, a theory that Hillary Clinton has made a major error by declaring her campaign so early:

Obama panicked her into a way-too-early-announcement. The cause of the panic was fund-raising (poaching of presumed supporters), which is the least vulnerable aspect of her campaign. Basically, if she wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, she wins the nomination. The most she can spend in Iowa and New Hampshire is $20 million, every last dollar counted, including the surrounding states primary television advertising that will be seen in Iowa. So money is not her problem. Imagining that it was and therefore entering the race six-to-eight months before she needed to was a MAJOR mistake. Had she entered in August or September, the surge would have run its course successfully or not. The Iran issue would be that much further along. Pandemic flu would have hit or not hit. Etc. By announcing early, she brought into play a hundred unnecessary variables.

So – in the era of the two year campaign, this raises the question – how much money does a serious candidate need? How much money should a serious candidate spend?


And, darn it, Ruffini’s thinking along the same lines.

The only reason Vilsack gave for dropping out of the race was money. He had recruited a series of top-notch operatives (Democrat celebrity-consultants tend to gravitate towards the long-sots more than do the Republicans). He had a staff of 50 in his Des Moines headquarters and was promoting the fact that he had racked up 3,000 “ones” in Iowa — which is short for a diehard vote at the Caucus.


Vilsack was running a top-heavy, traditional campaign when only untraditional campaigns get to go from single digits to 20-30 percent. His model was just wrong…


If you’re at 1% in the polls, you have to prepared to do all of this for $5 million or less in 2007. If you can’t, you have no business running for President. Because the political marketplace just isn’t big enough to support your lofty $15-20 million fundraising goal. If and when lightning strikes, the money will be pouring in hand over fist online and in direct mail.

Bingo. In an era of a much longer campaign, candidates have to get a lot more careful about how they spend their money.


So here’s my thought about Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, and any other aspiring president who’s getting mentioned but who hasn’t actually declared their candidacy or formed an exploratory committee: Don’t bother with the official stuff. Just travel around the country, yourself and maybe one aide, speaking to audiences. Make the argument. Be the talking head, do the interviews. If asked if you’re running, say, “maybe, I’m thinking about it, but I haven’t decided yet.” If someone argues that it’s late, scoff and point out how ridiculously early the cycle has begun. If the candidate is racking up little or no expenses, there’s little or no need to compete in the pirahna pool of campaign fundraising at this moment.


And then, sometime this fall, when you’ve hopefully generated some free media, you jump into the race officially.


I’ve been having fun arguments with another expat out here about American campaigns; he wants America to adopt the British system of very short official campaigns. From one of my e-mailed rants to the Brit-style enthusiast:

There’s an aspect of “the early bird gets the worm” to this, and the widespread belief that the person who is out making appearances first has a head start on winning over voters. And since most candidates start out with zero name recognition, they have to establish their reputation among voters, and that takes time. I think that money that is being spent on the 2008 presidential race right now is being essentially wasted because only the diehard political junkies are paying attention. But it remains to be seen.


In 2004, Wes Clark was one of the last to announce his campaign, and by then the best staff had been picked over, etc. He had less time to build a campaign infrastructure, less time to familiarize himself with a diverse range of issues (his comments outside military policy were pretty weak), some voters had already committed to another candidate, etc. When the announcements started this cycle (Edwards in late December) nobody wanted to be too much later, because nobody wanted to be in Clark’s position – trying to make up ground.


When will people start their campaigns later? When they see no advantage to starting them early.

In this cycle, we may see other candidates dropping out well before the Iowa caucus. (“Simon says everyone still in the race in December take one step forward. Not so fast, Dodd and Biden.”) Right now, 50 Vilsack staffers are looking for work with other campaigns. A late entrant with enough buzz can assemble a pretty good staff from the folks who are unemployed from working on other short-lived campaigns. Or they can use up their funds to pry a Joe Trippi-type out of media work.


If Gore or Gingrich or Candidate X does jump in much later this year, they will be the fresh face, after eight months of Hillary vs. Obama vs. Edwards, or Rudy vs. McCain vs. Romney. The press will be tired of the frontrunners. The voters in early primary states will probably be tired of them. The formula is there for some late-entry upstart. It’s not a guarantee of the nomination, of course, but it’s a way to get in the game with a shot – which is more than we can say for all the candidates who will run out of money before the Iowa caucuses.


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