The candidates are barely in the race, but the first major reckoning of the 2012 presidential campaign is this Thursday. When candidates close their second-quarter campaign finance reports for the Federal Election Commission at the end of the month, we may be able to start sorting the buyers from the spyers, the needy from the greedy, and those who are serious contenders from those who aren't.
The money chase will by no means offer a final verdict on any candidacy. Neither of the candidates who led the fundraising field at the beginning of 2007 won the nomination the following year: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised $23 million in the first quarter of 2007, nearly twice the $12.5 million that the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took in. Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton raised a whopping $26 million, barely outpacing rival Barack Obama's $25 million that quarter.
Still, fundraising results offer an initial glimpse into which candidates have the ability to compete, a factor made all the more crucial because President Obama is likely to have so much money to spend next year. Electability is on Republican voters' minds already; now, we get a hint at just who can make the credible argument that they can go toe to toe with perhaps the best finance operation in American political history.
The campaign has started a little later this year. There weren't enough candidates filing at the end of the first quarter to give much basis for comparison. But the game is afoot in earnest; when the second quarter ends at midnight on Thursday, each candidate will have expectations to meet. The spinning, aimed at keeping those expectations low, is already under way. Here's what the major campaigns want you to think, and what you should really expect:
Mitt Romney: Romney's team has figured out a clever game: Estimate ludicrously low, then dramatically overperform. It's always worth a few headlines. In 2007, Romney's team publicly hoped to raise $1 million during a call day that kicked off the campaign in January. They raised $6.5 million. By this year, advisers outside the campaign pegged their call-day hopes at $2 million to $3 million. The campaign raised more than $10 million.
For his first official quarter as a candidate, Republicans suggest Romney is likely to raise north of $40 million. The candidate himself has told supporters he will need $50 million to win the primary, but that's over the course of the entire campaign, not just this quarter.
Regardless of where he ends up, expect two things of Romney: First, that he raises more than the rest of the Republican field combined, unless some other candidate has an unexpected monster quarter. Second, that he'll make the argument he is best placed to compete with Obama. If Romney isn't able to win the nomination, the best lesson to take away will be that voters still care deeply about ideology, and they're willing to discard the candidate in the best competitive position in favor of one with whom they agree—even if that means a reduced chance of winning the general election.
Tim Pawlenty: Perhaps no candidate has more at stake than the former Minnesota governor. The media calls Pawlenty a top-tier candidate, and his hard work on the ground and solid team at headquarters in Minneapolis contribute to that image.
But Pawlenty has always had an inherent weakness. Low contribution limits in Minnesota mean he's never had to build a big fundraising base; his work as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association was an important introduction to some of the most important donors in the country. Sources suggest Pawlenty's fundraising will be light, but not dangerously so. He's unlikely to break the $10 million mark, but expect him to come in higher than $5 million.
One thing we'll be watching closely: The amount of debt he's already reporting. Holding back from paying vendors is a good way to boost a cash-on-hand number, but it's an indication that the campaign could be worried about cash flow.
Michele Bachmann: Pawlenty's biggest embarrassment could come from the other Minnesotan in the race. Bachmann, the founder of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus, uses direct mail to solicit big bucks in small increments from donors across the nation. Every time she's run for Congress, she's raised and spent nearly double what the average House member manages. But in 2010, she hit new heights: During that cycle, Bachmann pulled in an incredible $13.5 million (for a bit of perspective, Bachmann spent $11 million in 2010, more than 21 winning Senate candidates).
The effect of all that fundraising has been to hand Bachmann a strong foundation for her first quarter. Her House account already has $2.8 million, and if she hits her list hard, she could wind up as Romney's nearest rival.
That would cement her status as a potential top-tier candidate, and one who's way ahead of the likes of Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, former Sen. Rick Santorum, or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But with great expectations comes the prospect of great disappointment. If Bachmann can't turn in a good performance, it will suggest she's not quite ready for prime time.
Jon Huntsman: The new guy in the field hasn't had much time to get his financial house in order. He announced his intention to run this week after an abbreviated exploration, and now he must go about the mundane task of raising cash. He's off to a good start; an initial fundraising dinner netted him more than $1 million, according to several reports.
Huntsman is independently wealthy, but he's not Mitt Romney wealthy. He has said he will not self-finance his campaign, and yet he admitted contributing a little seed money to get his bid off the ground. We'll watch closely to see what counts as seed money around the Huntsman household, and we'll see how many big names have maxed out to his campaign.
Newt Gingrich: The media has started the Gingrich death watch. After losing the bulk of his staff two weeks ago and his top fundraisers last week, Gingrich is already fielding questions about how long he can continue.
The figure we're watching: Line 10 on Gingrich's FEC form, which is where he'll be forced to disclose the debts he already owes. Big fundraisers are already backing away from Gingrich. If his financial outlook is weaker than expected, it will hasten his descent into obscurity.
The Rest of the Field: Can Cain or Santorum make a splash? What about Rep. Thaddeus McCotter? The Michigan Republican used his House campaign's money to purchase a plot at the Iowa straw poll in August, but he's never been a proven fundraiser.
Expect Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to turn in a strong fundraising performance. He's hoping to raise up to $3 million by the end of the month—more in the last week than other candidates might receive in a quarter. But Paul is still an afterthought in the national conversation, an irony considering how many of Paul's once radical ideas—like auditing the Federal Reserve or pulling troops out of Afghanistan—now have adherents among candidates considered much more in the mainstream.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the FEC filing deadline for presidential candidates. Campaigns close their books June 30; they have until July 15 to file reports with the commission.)