Republican presidential primary already starting to take shape

It is only mid February, and yet some contours of the 2024 Republican presidential primary are already starting to take shape. Donald Trump is likely to remain the king of “earned media.” Nikki Haley and Tim Scott prepared for this moment by developing national fundraising networks. The New Hampshire GOP primary may not be as consequential if Granite State governor Chris Sununu chooses to run, and because the South Carolina primary is likely to have only one winner, it will likely be the end of the road for either Haley or Scott. Which means that while Democrats are attempting to downgrade the Iowa caucuses, in the Republican field, the Hawkeye State may end up being more consequential than usual.

Here Come the Donation Requests

With Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign now made official, Donald Trump already in, and figures such as Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, Chris Sununu, and possibly some others likely to announce in the coming weeks, presidential candidates will soon be asking you for donations.

If you want to have even a competitive and serious presidential campaign, you need to raise tens of millions of dollars. That amount can be self-funded, or it can be raised in individual donations of up to $3,300 this cycle. Whether or not you or a candidate likes that unofficial threshold for credibility, it exists, and it is real.

The cost of a campaign can be mitigated somewhat if a candidate is skilled at getting “free media,” or “earned media,” as Donald Trump did in 2015 — getting the press to talk about the campaign, mitigating the need for paid advertising. Some of us may recall that Trump won that massive bonanza in “free media” by tearing apart the rest of the Republican Party in a way that thrilled the mainstream media. One study calculated that by March 2016, the media had effectively given Trump something akin to $2 billion in free advertising by covering his campaign so relentlessly and ubiquitously.

Back in 2019, Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, fumed in a fundraising email that the cost of running a presidential campaign was “obscene.” I understand the sentiment, but how much do we think a successful presidential campaign should cost? You’re trying to persuade tens of millions of your fellow party members and also roughly 150 million Americans to entrust you with the highest position of our government for four years. That’s an enormously big deal, and it can’t be done cheaply.

Before anything else, a presidential campaign needs to get the candidate on the primary ballot, which, depending upon the state, may cost a little or it may cost a lot. (In Arkansas, Democratic candidates must pay a $2,500 filing fee and collect 5,000 signatures. In South Carolina, Democratic candidates must pony up $20,000.)

Think about everything a presidential campaign needs to pay for: The campaign will need a national headquarters, which will rack up considerable costs on rent, phone, Internet and cable, and utilities. The campaign will also need staff in each of the early primary states, as well as campaign offices — ideally multiple offices. If your New Hampshire campaign office is in Nashua, it will take your staff nearly two hours by car to set up a rally or event in Littleton.

The candidate is going to need to travel from place to place, whether it’s by car, bus, commercial air travel, or private jet. The candidate and his traveling staff are going to need places to stay in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina. The staff needs to eat; campaigns spend thousands of dollars ordering coffee, pizza, snacks, and other food for the campaign offices. A presidential campaign could start with just a few offices in the early states, but eventually it is going to need multiple offices in all 50 states. These offices and supporters will need yard signs, banners, and flyers — all the usual paraphernalia. Any serious candidate will need a social-media team to set up a campaign website and managing a social-media presence.

And all of this is before you get to one of the biggest costs: Advertising. Lots of voters aren’t going to visit your website, follow you on Twitter, watch your YouTube videos, or attend the candidate forum, and they will pay only intermittent attention to news coverage of the primary. Your best bet to reach them is through ads — both television commercials, likely running during the nightly local news, or through radio ads, ideally in drive-time of mornings and late afternoons.

In other words, there’s no way to run a successful presidential campaign on a shoestring budget, and fundraising numbers are also usually somewhat reflective of support in the party. If lots of members of your party like you and think you should be the next president, they’ll be inclined to write checks to your campaign or log on and donate through your website.

Candidates and their campaigns want to see signs of success, so they will interpret every positive interaction, round of applause, or one-percentage-point improvement from the last poll as a sign of “momentum.” It is not that hard to go to a candidate forum in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina and give a speech that tells the audience what they want to hear. It is not that hard to walk through a diner in a primary state and shake hands with locals and have a nice hour or so of “retail politicking.” But as many candidates have learned, voters can like many candidates but they can only vote for one of them. The other major flaw in this strategy is that after those first few caucuses and primaries, a campaign must scale up its efforts dramatically. A “Super Tuesday” of a dozen or so states is always just around the corner, and you just can’t shake enough hands in enough diners to win a half-dozen states voting on the same day. The only way to do well on a “Super Tuesday” is to run a lot of ads, win a lot of earned media, or both.

Some candidates begin the presidential race with an established national fundraising network, and others don’t. Some candidates whine about how unfair it is, and some candidates realize that a widespread donor base is a de facto prerequisite for running for president.

Notice that over the course of her political career, Nikki Haley raised a considerable percentage of her donations — 40 percent — from places beyond South Carolina.

In-state donors provided 60 percent ($7.6 million) of Haley’s total, but no other state by itself accounted for more than 6 percent. Haley raised a considerable amount from donors in other southern states, including $426,101 from North Carolina, $296,686 from Georgia, and $262,550 from Virginia. She also was a strong fundraiser in major population hubs, including $771,019 from Florida, $702,481 from Texas, and $356,567 from New York. She even raked in six figures from donors in large Democratic states such as California ($230,725) and Illinois ($156,966).

South Carolina senator Tim Scott, fresh off a reelection bid that was never all that competitive, has just under $22 million in cash on hand.

There is always some candidate who believes that they can win the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary by metaphorically moving to one of those states. Or sometimes literally; in October 2007, Connecticut senator Chris Dodd rented a house in West Des Moines to demonstrate how determined he was to win the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Apparently Iowans did not find Dodd to be such an endearing new neighbor; the senator finished with the equivalent of one state delegate out of a possible 2,500, and no convention delegates. (Back then, Iowa Democrats didn’t release the raw vote totals. Considering how the Democrats’ 2020 Iowa caucus turned out, you could argue they still are reluctant to do so.)

There’s another odd wrinkle that is already taking shape in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. As discussed on Meet the Press Now yesterday, we may well have two major GOP candidates from South Carolina, and it also appears likely that New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu will run. (I notice that because he serves two-year terms, Sununu has a lot of experience asking for votes in his home state, but his fundraising is fairly modest, as New Hampshire isn’t a particularly expensive state for campaigning.)

Traditionally, when a presidential primary features a candidate from one of those early states, the rest of the field just concedes that candidate’s home state. Iowa senator Tom Harkin ran for president in 1992, and the rest of the Democratic field didn’t bother competing in the caucuses against the “favorite son” candidate. Harkin won the caucuses with 76.8 percent, but no one really cared. The real contest was in New Hampshire, where Bill Clinton convinced the media that his second-place finish with 25 percent made him the “comeback kid” and the real winner, and that Paul Tsongas’s victory with 33 percent was no big deal because he represented next-door Massachusetts. (An early demonstration of the power of the Clinton spin machine.)

While Democrats are attempting to reshuffle their presidential-primary order by pushing Iowa back a few weeks and upgrading Georgia, Republicans are still scheduled to hold the Iowa caucuses first. A week after that, it’s New Hampshire, where Sununu could be the “favorite son” candidate, making that state less competitive or consequential. (It is possible, some might even argue probable, that New Hampshire Republicans will prefer other candidates than their current governor.) After that, it would be South Carolina, where Haley and Scott could still both be competing, and it is difficult to envision a scenario where either or both continue in the race without winning their home state.

This could make Iowa more consequential and New Hampshire and South Carolina somewhat less consequential, at least in the race for the GOP nomination.

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