Will Clinton and Obama's Millions Rock the Vote?

Last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) announced she'd raised a record-breaking $26 million for her presidential campaign. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is second with $25 million. Political analysts Douglas Schoen and Robert George offer their thoughts.

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

November 2008 may be a year and a half away but one thing's clear, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both have what it takes to raise presidential dollars. Last week, the New York senator announced she's raised 26 million. Senator Obama soon followed with a $25 million announcement of his own. Together, the pair have built a huge fundraising lead over the Republican field with nearly $80 million to the GOP's $50 million in the first quarter of campaign reporting.

To digest these early figures, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with political analysts Douglas Schoen and Robert George. Schoen is a Democratic pollster and former research and strategic consultant to President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. And Robert George is an editorial writer for the New York Post and former senior writer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998.

FARAI CHIDEYA: To both of you, and Doug first and Robert follow up, what exactly do these first quarter fundraising totals tell us about the Democratic race, Obama and Clinton in particular.

Mr. DOUGLAS SCHOEN (Former Democratic Strategist): Well, what I picked up is that Senator Obama has twice as many small donors as Senator Clinton, close to a hundred thousand. And what I take away from that is that Obama is building a database of small donors who can be re-solicited with great frequency. And since he only began his effort in January and he's at a hundred thousand and he has many, many small-dollar events both planned in person and online for the second quarter, I think this offers him enormous potential of going forward.

Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Editorial Writer, New York Post): I would have to agree with that a hundred percent. Farai, as you may know, before I went into the honest living of journalism, I was even more honest in the fundraising political world. And the fact is the real nectar of the gods if you're in fundraising is the small donors. I mean the false stereotypes in fundraising is that the Republicans are the party of the huge donors and the Democrats are the party of the little guy. In fact, while both parties have large donors, the per-dollar donation in the Republican Party is a lot smaller than it is within the Democrats. And Doug is right. What Obama has done in terms of identifying low dollar donors is really, really impressive.

And given that donors in the primaries can give up to $2,300, most of the donors that he's given so far have been giving in $100 and $25 increments. That means he can go back to that well many, many times while the primaries are still going; whereas Senator Clinton's donors have given in larger amounts so that's a smaller pool for her to draw on.

CHIDEYA: Doug, you know, we've heard Senator Obama argue that money follows message. And he says it this way, sometimes it's the candidate who raises the most money, but a lot of time it's the candidates with the best message and the money follows.

First of all, do you believe that? And secondly, what message is the Obama campaign putting out as its hallmark, or is the campaign so far more personality-driven?

Mr. SCHOEN: I think that's an excellent question. I think it's more personality-driven. I think what has not happened is Senator Obama has really not articulated a specific message other than disagreeing with Senator Clinton about what happened five years ago with the decision to go to war in Iraq. I think what's been noticeable in the first quarter is that while Senator Obama has generated enormous enthusiasm at the grassroots, witness the fundraising numbers Robert and I were talking about, what he hasn't done is to offer a compelling and clear view of where he'd like America to go.

It's clear from what he said he's going to start doing that. But if you look at the national poll numbers, Senator Clinton maintains a very strong 13, 14 point lead in the average Democratic primary trial lead as reported by RealClear Politics. So I believe that Senator Obama has probably done a better job raising money than articulating a message in the first quarter.

CHIDEYA: And, Robert, what do you think are the advantages that the Clinton camp has? I mean, one of our contributors has noted that she should have at this point, and I say should because it's speculative, a deeper well of on-the-ground operatives, people who were working for the other Clinton, her husband. What do you think about that?

Mr. GEORGE: Well, in the pure context, right. I mean she has an impressive machine. I don't mean that in a negative sense. I mean she does have the nuts and bolts of on-the-ground, across the state. She has in a sense been developing a nationwide political operation for several years now, and that's something, obviously, that Senator Obama does not yet have. The other thing she obviously has, and you just mentioned it, is the other Clinton. She's got Bill. And there's a lot of chits that he has out there that can also be called in. He's also become one of her primary fundraising weapons, as well.

So there's definitely a lot of structural advantages that she has. I would also agree with Doug that I think Obama should now pivot from the fundraising; because now that he's got the fundraising, that sends a signal that he can play with the big boys, or the big girl in the sense. But now he needs to develop that into a full message.

CHIDEYA: You know, Doug, Donna Brazile, who is one of our contributors here on NEWS & NOTES, was of course the director of Al Gore's presidential run. And in interviewing her after that, we spoke about her argument to the candidate, which apparently he didn't heed, to really put more people on the ground, to really have more grassroots organizers. Is this going to be, if you want to put it in these terms, an air war or a ground war? Is this going to be a television campaign or are you really going to need people just on the grassroots?

Mr. SCHOEN: I think you're going to need both. These primaries and these caucuses that are coming up in January and early February, or late, are going to be both air and TV wars. I think what we're seeing with Senator Obama is the prospect and the possibility - as Robert and I were suggesting - of putting thousands and thousands of people on the streets. And I would not underestimate Senator Clinton.

Again, Rogert is correct. President Clinton engenders enormous loyalty and affection from his prior supporters and financial backers. So Senator Clinton will have the money and she will have the troops. So I think we're going to see an unbelievable outpouring of financial and political and on-the-ground activity as the caucuses and the primaries approach in early 2008.

CHIDEYA: And, Doug, you have a new book out called "The Power of the Vote." And you really draw back the curtain on how modern elections have been changed in the past quarter century. What exactly do you mean by that? And how does it affect a race like this, which, certainly you've got to admit, it is ground breaking to have a white woman and a black man be the top party contenders for the Democratic Party?

Mr. SCHOEN: What I argue in "The Power of the Vote" is that the tools and techniques of political consulting can really make a difference between not only winning and losing, but in international context and even a domestic context, we can keep elections honest. We can use exit polls to determine where there's cheating and where there's fraud, witness Florida in 2000. But we can enhance the quality of democracy, and I think that the tools that I explained are really going to be more important in strengthening and enhancing our democratic system.

CHIDEYA: Robert, not everybody likes exit polls. You know, I think of one person for example, just an example, Arianna Huffington has said: People, don't deal with the pollsters. And I think she's speaking more about the people who poll in advance, but there a lot of people who don't believe exit polls are accurate or don't believe that there are even good ways of measuring election fraud when it happens. The actual going to the polls is far away.

But both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton did make a point about voting rights when they went down to Selma, Alabama. How important is that issue going to be for them in recruiting voters, swaying voters, bringing people to the table who might not even be voters so far?

Mr. GEORGE: I think it's going to be very important, and obviously in the context of the African-American voters/African-American audience, the concern about voter rights, ballot integrity, things of that, there is a strong, strong resonance within that community, and particularly in the context of the primary, where the African-American vote is proportionately much larger within the context of the Democratic electorate than it is with the electorate at large.

In places like, say, South Carolina, it's as much as maybe 50 percent of the voters in the primary will be African-Americans. So I think it's important obviously if you are Obama, Clinton, or anyone of the Democrats to speak to that concern and in a sense push the people out.

Because, I mean, I know after both 2000 and 2004, there was a sentiment of - I don't know how much or how well it was captured by pollsters - but there was a sentiment amongst African-Americans, oh, well do our votes still count, given some of the questions that were raised in both Florida and Ohio and so forth.

And I think it's incumbent upon all the candidates to encourage people to get to the polls and to underscore the candidates' commitment to having a clean election both on the primary side and at the general election.

CHIDEYA: Doug, do you in your book talk about the psychological aspect of voting and whether or not people are discouraged by what they see as underhanded tactics that occur during elections?

Mr. SCHOEN: Yes, I do. I mean, the power of the vote, what I argue is that when people believe elections are free and fair and that their voice will be heard, that they participate in large numbers and they do it enthusiastically. They are much less likely to participate fully - and this is certainly the case for African-Americans in the United States - if they believe that either the elections themselves are rigged or their own participation is being discouraged.

And I think the one thing we can say about election 2008 is both in the primaries, because of Barack Obama, and in the general election, given the strategic importance of African-American votes, and indeed in the primaries, given the large number of African-American participants we're likely to have, African-American voters are going to be a decisive, perhaps the decisive voting block in the election. So empowerment of African-Americans is going to be not only good for the system, but it ultimately could well determine how the election comes out.

CHIDEYA: To you, Doug, and to you, Robert, thanks for joining us.

Mr. SCHOEN: Pleased to be here.

Mr. GEORGE: Thank you, Farai. Thank you.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Douglas Schoen and Robert George. Schoen is a Democratic poster and author of the book "The Power of the Vote." He was President Bill Clinton's research and strategic consultant during the 1996 re-election campaign. And Robert George is an editorial writer for the New York Post. He was also a senior writer for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich from 1995 to 1998.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Just ahead, reaction keeps rolling in to the suspension of shock jock Don Imus. And a little later, jazz legend Joe Zawinul studio talks about the music that changed his life.

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