Voters in Iowa are about to begin the process of choosing the next president. On Thursday night, they go to their local party caucuses. It's the earliest the process has ever begun, but just getting to this point already has consumed a phenomenal amount of money.
The pundit class predicted long ago that campaign money would flood the early primary states, and it has. The candidates' year-end reports for 2007 aren't due until Jan. 31, but we already know that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised more than $100 million each.
It's also clear that Republican Mitt Romney, the richest of the candidates, who shuddered early on at the notion of self-financing his campaign is doing exactly that. The former Massachusetts governor was in it for $17 million as of Sept. 30, and his campaign needs have only intensified with his falling poll numbers.
Outside groups are also active in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Two coalitions funded mainly by unions have pumped nearly $2 million into ads supporting Democrat John Edwards.
Hillary Clinton draws support from a trio of powerful groups: the abortion rights organization EMILY's List, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Legally, they cannot coordinate with Clinton's campaign, but they can work with each other. They've spent roughly $1 million using a framework of the Internet, phone banks, direct mail and radio to identify Clinton voters. AFSCME's political action committee has laid out an additional half-million dollars for TV, mail and a Web site opposing Obama.
Among Republicans, the most powerful outside group may be Trust Huckabee, an effort mounted by Common Sense Issues, itself a nonprofit organization financed mainly by wealthy donors in Ohio and Texas. Trust Huckabee attacked Romney with a TV ad and telephone operation. The group is also working through a Web site to build precinct operations for the candidate. With the crazy-quilt laws that govern campaign-finance disclosure, it's unclear how much Trust Huckabee has spent.
Each candidate hopes for a victory bounce like the one that Democrat John Kerry enjoyed four years ago. After winning the Iowa caucuses, his campaign was inundated with cash — so much that some of it never got spent.
For some candidates who don't get that bounce, there's the prospect of public financing. Seven candidates have qualified, notably Edwards and Republican John McCain. But only Edwards has said he'll actually take the money, which in his case is $8.8 million to start with. He can qualify for more as he continues to raise small donations.
But there's a problem with public financing: It comes with a spending cap of about $50 million. Several candidates already were around that mark by Sept. 30 — and anyone who abides by the cap and wins the nomination would be cash-starved till the primary season officially ends, around Labor Day.