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So Who Gave Jeb All That Money?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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News item: Jeb Bush's super PAC has raised

Yes, it's a lot of money, but, sorry, I can't get into it. The amount of money Jeb! will raise for his presidential campaign is More Than Enough. The details of exactly how much (more than $100 million) and when it was raised and via which legal mechanisms aren't going to matter much. The same goes for the fundraising details for all the leading candidates for president and even for some marginal contenders as well. 

What matters in presidential financial reports is the who. The information on who is giving can provide clues to what party actors are thinking. Contributions to campaign organizations can be evidence of party support, just as high-profile endorsements are, and the decisions by campaign and governing professionals to attach themselves to a candidate.

Sorting out the details isn't easy. Generally, we should expect money raised from regular party donors to matter more than a candidate's self-financing or money from the candidate's friends, family and other personal supporters. But the Federal Election Commission doesn't require donors to state how important they are within party networks.

I'm not saying that political fundraising totals and the details of when the money is raised aren't important. They are -- just not in presidential elections. In primary races for the U.S. Senate and House and in statewide contests, there's no guarantee candidates will raise enough money to be contenders. Early finance totals can be signs of broad support, leading to further fundraising success, which can push other candidates to withdraw.

What money buys in contests below the presidential level can matter a lot in both primaries and the general election. Since the news media doesn't cover those elections much, most information voters receive is from the campaigns, either through ads or get-out-the-vote efforts. If one candidate can afford to provide those things and the other can't, that's going to have a major effect.

Presidential campaigns are different. Media coverage will be wall-to-wall by the time the party primaries approach, so information provided and paid for by the candidates won't matter as much. Almost any serious campaign can afford the ads it needs to get its message across on Iowa and New Hampshire television, as well as to finance a serious enough get-out-the-vote effort. Spending soon gets into the neighborhood of seriously diminishing returns.

Presidential fundraising totals, like poll rankings, receive a lot of press attention because the numbers are available and seem objective and solid -- and because people are easily impressed by big piles of money. Don't be distracted. If you want to know how the candidates are doing, watch how the party actors are treating them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net