Will she or won't she? She will. And by the time she does, she will have raised more money than any primary contender in history. Just a guess.
In theory, under the new rules, the fact that Hillary Clinton has locked up 99 percent of the big Democratic money (Okay, maybe just a tiny bit less) would end the conversation. The winner of the money primary has always been the candidate who collects the most "whales": the guys with money who also know how to go and collect it, the Terry McAuliffe model. But with no rules at all, which is essentially how it works out once you work your way through all of the loopholes, it really would be possible for some gigantic whale no one has even heard of to upset the show. The super-whales — guys like Tom Steyer — don't have to go to conferences and put together a consensus. All you need to start a campaign is a checkbook.
So the Democratic side becomes a snooze-like series of pieces about "what if" and "who then" and "should she grow her hair longer." You know we're in trouble when they start focusing on who Hillary will choose as her running mate, which I actually expect to see any day now. Meanwhile, the numbers will be nothing less than astronomical. There is very little room in the caboose of this train.
But on the Republican side, the fun has just begun. The money primary is on. If you're Jeb Bush, you at least start with a very long list and name recognition. Everybody else has to slug down those chicken wings, eat four breakfasts, manageto cast a vote and then hop a little charter plane to some town in Iowa where you're keynoting a dinner that half the people don't show up for.
This is how the candidates spend the year before anyone but us is paying attention. They spend it raising money — and hopefully out-training their opponents. The press does the judging each quarter.
And as anyone who has ever spent time raising money will tell you, it's a pyramid. You need a small number of big donors, and no matter how many press releases you issue, very few people are going to write a big check the first time they meet the candidate (at least not unless they've already been strong-armed by the likes of McAuliffe). They want to develop a relationship with the candidate. They want to spend time talking about issues. They want real input. "God help us," some aide is murmuring under her breath. I was often that aide.
There is nothing small-"d" democratic about it. People who pay to hobnob with presidents and would-be presidents aren't paying a year's mortgage to have a drink and fancy hors d'oeuvres with him or her because of their civic values. They do it because their industries or businesses want access to the administration (and ultimately more favorable results). "The money is beside the point," they will say, and everyone will smile and say, "Of course, one thing has nothing to do with the other" — even when we know it has everything to do with the other.
On the Republican side, the challenge for the whales will be to fight all of those sharks who would actually try to change the system and elect someone from outside the club. Good viewing.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)
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