It Wasn’t $$ That Undercut Dole

October 22, 1999

In explaining her decision to withdraw from the Republican presidential nomination contest, Elizabeth Dole argued that she was unable to raise the money necessary to compete with her well-heeled opponents, George W. Bush and Steve Forbes.

In one sense, she is certainly accurate. Bush’s unprecedented success in raising funds (more than $50 million in the first nine months of the 2000 election cycle) and Forbes’ deep pockets dwarf what Dole was able to raise.

This gave her two main rivals an enormous advantage in mounting a serious ground and air campaign in the highly telescoped nomination contest that begins with the Iowa caucuses in January. Much of the commentary analyzing Dole’s withdrawal suggests that she is another casualty of our broken campaign finance system.

But if the proximate cause of her decision was the absence of funds (as was true of those who proceeded her, including Ohio Rep. John Kasich, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and former Vice President Dan Quayle), the real forces that determined her fate lie elsewhere. Her money problem was more symptom than cause, and no conceivable reform of the campaign finance system would have produced a different outcome for her.

Dole faced two formidable obstacles. First, she entered a field largely pre-empted by Bush. Republican Party activists and donors, anxious to regain the Oval Office they regard as their rightful inheritance, settled early on the Texas governor as the candidate most likely to win the 2000 sweepstakes.

Bush’s formidable lead in the polls shaped and reinforced this near consensus view and attracted the financial support of those who might otherwise have been persuaded to contribute to Dole’s campaign. Bush’s staggering fund-raising lead is more a reflection of his underlying strength than its source. It has nothing to do with soft money or leadership politcal action committees (PACs) or sham issue advocacy.

His lead is built on thousands of individual contributions of $1,000 or less, from donors who believe he has the best chance to return the presidency to the Republicans and, at the same time, retain Republican majorities in Congress.

This clearly limited the targets of fund-raising opportunity for Dole and other candidates, and made the shortage of campaign funds a sobering reality for most of the field.

Additionally, Dole never succeeded in projecting a rationale for her candidacy beyond her gender. While her résumé includes impressive cabinet and nonprofit sector positions, she is a neophyte in elective politics, with neither a record in office nor a clear public persona that might convey to activists and voters the kind of a president she would be.

Her name recognition and gender provided her opportunities not available to some of her competitors, yet her fledgling campaign failed to convey a plausible story line, a rationale for her candidacy that might connect with the concerns of ordinary citizens.

No better illustration of the relative unimportance of money to Dole’s failed candidacy is the decline of her support in New Hampshire relative to Arizona Sen. John McCain over the course of 1999. At the beginning of the year, Dole enjoyed a towering lead over McCain in polls of likely voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary—with Dole at 30-plus percent and McCain at 3 percent. By fall, Dole’s support had plummeted to 6 percent while McCain had surged to 23 percent. Both candidates spent virtually nothing on media during this period. There is no avoiding the conclusion that Dole failed to light a fire among New Hampshire voters, and Republican activists increasingly came to the view that her decline in support was likely to continue.

Dole’s withdrawal from the contest narrows the Republican field to three serious candidates (Bush, Forbes and McCain) and clearly gives McCain a more open field to seize any opportunity that might arise if Bush fails to live up to his very high expectations.

Ironically, Dole’s emphasis on money as the determining factor in ending her candidacy boosts the prospects of McCain, who is most clearly identified with campaign finance reform. Yet the fact remains that money had little to do with Dole’s lack of success, and the serious flaws in the campaign finance system are to be found elsewhere.