Opinion

In campaigns, it’s not all about the money

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Last July, I wrote a column that implored you to ignore fundraising reports and polls in the gubernatorial contest.

Today is your first test to see whether you listened or not.

The end of year filing deadline has come and gone, and the January 2018 reports are now public. We now know who has raised how much in the race to replace Gov. Paul LePage.

So far, the Democrats — the party that hates “big money in politics” — is the party bringing in a lot of big money. Adam Cote has reported $527,634 raised, while Janet Mills has hauled in $352,575, Mark Eves received $160,319 and Jim Boyle reportedly raised $134,000. Other candidates, such as Diane Russell and Mark Dion, raised significantly less, while Betsy Sweet is running with taxpayer funds.

On the Republican side, Shawn Moody reported $301,705, Mary Mayhew came in at $197,838, Mike Thibodeau raised $100,763, and Ken Fredette raised $14,435, while Garrett Mason chose to run under public financing as well.

Independent Alan Caron raised $280,195 — largely from his own fortune — and Terry Hayes, like Sweet and Mason, is running under the Maine Clean Election Act.

As we digest these numbers, it is clear that the media, already, hasn’t listened to my plea from July. Already they are obsessively writing about the fundraising totals, and speculating about what they mean for the campaign. This morning while listening to some political analysts break down the numbers, it was even suggested that these numbers may lead some candidates to drop out of the race, and others to be considered too strong to beat.

Evidence to the contrary, it seems, makes no difference to the media or the pundit class, as the irresistible catnip that is fundraising reports and poll numbers overwhelm their common sense.

As I said six months ago, we learned — or at least we should have learned — a valuable lesson in 2010. Fundraising was constantly used to deem certain candidates “serious” and certain candidates “hopeless.” I recall dismissive media types talking about then Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, suggesting that he had no real chance and that he should drop out. Les Otten and Steve Abbott, it was said, had the real momentum.

Oops.

Listen, I fell for it a little bit too, but I shouldn’t have. We all believe that the person who has more money will get the most votes. It doesn’t matter how many times it is disproved, we just feel like it is true, which is why politicians get a lot of mileage droning on about how evil “money in politics” is.
According to the filings from 2010, at this very moment — the January reporting period — in the campaign that year, Abbott and Bill Beardsley had not even filed to run yet.

Otten had raised $662,632.45, Bruce Poliquin $442,839.30, Matt Jacobson $82,088.00 and LePage $58,677.00. Peter Mills was collecting Clean Election checks.

If you were writing stories about who was up and who was down at that moment in time, you were unquestionably heralding Otten as the “frontrunner” of the race, with Poliquin clearly showing “a lot of momentum.” Jacobson, while lagging, looked like a “serious contender” while LePage was “clearly struggling.”

You know the rest of the story, of course. LePage smoked the entire field, winning 37 percent of the vote in a seven-way contest, and the rest coughing up dust.

This lack of correlation between money and votes is a fact that is repeated time after time in politics. Hillary Clinton raised more than a billion dollars for her campaign, which represented twice the amount of money that Donald Trump raised, yet she lost the election.

Despite this, we insist on believing that a correlation is really there. That money and votes are at all tied together.

At this point in 2010, LePage was dead last in fundraising of the declared candidates, and yet this year, once again, people are calling for candidates to drop out and making judgments about how serious their campaign is, or how much momentum they have, based solely on these fundraising numbers.

Should Eves reconsider his bid just because Cote and Mills annihilated him in fundraising? Should Thibodeau give it up just because Moody raised three times the amount of money in this reporting period?

No, of course not. Yet that’s what so-called political analysts who think they have a clue will be saying. And this problem will get all the worse once polling starts.

As I told you last year, ignore the noise, and judge these campaigns and their candidates based on their merits alone.

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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