While New Hampshire Republicans and Fox News executives bicker about how many of the 15 to 20 GOP presidential candidates will get to stand on the stage at the first debate in August, the candidates themselves are frantically courting the nation’s billionaires. A good showing in a debate can give a candidate a boost for a week or two, but the backing of a billionaire can keep a campaign going for months, no matter what happens in the debates or in the primaries and caucuses.
In 2012, the financial support of Las Vegas casino mogul and Israel partisan Sheldon Adelson allowed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to maintain his run for the presidency far longer than his middling success with voters would have otherwise allowed. Ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum struggled in the early contests, but big bucks from a single wealthy conservative, Foster Freiss, allowed Santorum’s candidacy to stay alive right to the end of primary season.
This year, the billionaires are more important than ever. The Republican field is both better-credentialed and more evenly divided than it was during the last presidential election cycle. There are no front-runners like Mitt Romney in 2012 or George W. Bush in 2000, who both started out with significant leads over their rivals. There are also fewer screwballs like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, who clearly have no chance of winning. Even the screwiest in this year’s pack, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, can claim a formidable base of support.
That is why the largesse of a politically-motivated billionaire counts so much. In a crowded field in which almost every candidate can make a credible argument about why he or she is as qualified as anyone else, having enough money to stay in the game longer improves the odds of success -- even if success is just a gig with Fox News when the election is over.
After declaring his candidacy last week, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the competition for the support of billionaires has “changed everything.” He also said: “Send some my way!” Graham might seem an unlikely bet to win the nomination, but he has his own billionaire backer, investor Ronald Perelman, so the hawkish senator cannot be written off.
Adelson is back this year ready to gamble on a new candidate. The would-be presidents have been parading before him like Vegas showgirls preening for Sinatra. A couple of them, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, very publicly jumped to get back in his good graces when their small flubs on Israel displeased Adelson.
And that demonstrates the glaring problem with the “billionaires’ primary”: those who seek to be president of all the people should not make themselves beholden to one or two mega-rich plutocrats who wish to have their personal political views transformed into national policy. The wealthy have, of course, always had a bigger voice in American politics than the average voter, but not since the Gilded Age more than a century ago has the abject submission of candidates to a few fabulously rich men been so blatant.
Then there is the lesser quandary that the rise of the billionaires has created for the Republican Party. GOP leaders would like to get the primary fight out of the way early so that their standard bearer can get a head start campaigning against Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democratic nominee may be. Instead, they might find numerous billionaire-backed contenders still viable and fighting for the nomination right up to their 2016 national convention in Cleveland. Their only hope is that voters somehow coalesce around one candidate earlier in the game.
And isn’t that a quaint idea -- voters choosing a presidential candidate rather than the billionaires?