The mainstream media is already busy anointing â€œserious contenderâ€ status to a variety of Democratic party presidential hopefuls, well in advance of the 2008 elections. What makes a serious contender, in the eyes of insider pundits? Why, fundraising success, of course; that is, success in gathering large bundles of campaign cash from party insiders and the corporate well-to-do. For instance, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has recently proclaimed Indiana Senator Evan Bayh a serious contender on the basis of his popularity amongst the moneyed Democratic Party elite:
Bayh raised better than $3 million for his Senate committee in 2005, ending the year with a whopping $9.5 million on hand — all of which could be directly transferred to a presidential bid. He also raked in an additional $1.5 million for his All America political action committee, a sum that can be used to support Democratic candidates in 2006 and fund Bayh’s travels around the country.
This sort of proclamation about who is and who is not a serious contender for the presidency can be self-fulfilling, as people give cash to people who are “serious” contenders because they have already received large wads of cash. It is an undemocratic measure, giving disproportionate weight to the wishes of the wealthy and little regard to the large majority of American voters who are (how rude!) too strapped for cash to make $2,000 campaign contributions.
Thereâ€™s an alternate measure, one that still captures the preferences of committed political activists while remaining more egalitarian in its measurement. Over at Vote Democrat 2008, we offer bumper stickers, buttons and t-shirts that promote various Democratic bids for the presidency in 2008 — candidacies both “serious” and “frivolous.” Unlike the mainstream pundits, we think which are which is a matter for you to decide, voting with your committed statements. For someone to buy a sticker, button or shirt promoting a presidential candidate takes some gumption, since it involves the commitment to publicly state oneâ€™s endorsement of a candidate. The relative popularity of the contenders in sales of these items is an indicator of the size of the set of core supporters, ready to mobilize when a full presidential campaign gets underway.
Weâ€™ve been keeping track of trends in the sale of Election 2008 stickers, buttons and shirts since the debacle of November 2004. With another month past us now, hereâ€™s an update with results for the most recent month of April 2006:
These results betray a different pattern than Chris Cillizza’s reading of the the fundraising tea leaves. While Evan Bayh may be an awfully swell fundraiser, his inspiration of citizens is rather low — stickers, buttons and shirts in support of a Bayh candidacy account for less than 1% of all 2008 gear sold in April. Someone apparently more inspiring is former Senator Mike Gravel, who announced his run for the presidency in 2008 this month as a way of spreading word about his national initiative idea. Gravel was a more popular choice this month than another of the anointed “serious” candidates, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Two other candidacies benefitting from free publicity this month are those of Delaware Senator Joe Biden and former Vice President Al Gore. Biden announced his run for the White House on Bill Maher’s HBO show, and Al Gore is making a run of the magazines in the lead-up to his release of the global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Rounding out a clear set of five top contenders are three more Senators: moderates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama along with solid progressive Russ Feingold.
Whatâ€™s next? Unlike the chattering pundits, we’re happy to say we just don’t know. But we do promise to keep on keeping track of these and other Democratic contendersâ€™ popularity as the 2008 elections creep ever closer. Look for another release of tracking data in a monthâ€™s time.