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Follow the Real Money -- Updated

On the campaign trail this week, we had Hillary Clinton desperately trying to hang on to the aura of the unstoppable frontrunner by refusing to specify how much of her first quarter fundraising was for the primary.
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UPDATE: On the campaign trail this week, we had Hillary Clinton desperately trying to hang on to the aura of the unstoppable frontrunner by refusing to specify how much of her first quarter fundraising was for the primary, and how much was for the general, thereby earning a spate of "Hillary is #1" headlines and holding off the news -- until it was broken by Jake Tapper of ABC News -- that Obama had actually topped her. Even after ABC reported that Clinton had raised $20 million for the primary compared to Obama's $23.5 million, the story line continued to be Obama "nearly matched Hillary's 26 mil." Once and for all, Obama did not come close to Hillary. Obama beat Hillary in primary donations, which--money-wise--is all that matters for the primary season.


What is it with the media and the Clintons? Something about Bill and Hillary just seems to throw off the instrumentation of reporters. It's not that the reporting is consistently too negative, or consistently too positive, just that it's so often not the truth -- or at least, not the whole truth.

For instance, I can see why Hillary's camp would want to trumpet the $36 million that appeared in many of the campaign fundraising stories. But I can't understand why anyone in the media would lead a report with this number. The real story is that Obama's take for the primary may be staggeringly close to Hillary's, despite the fact that he is a newcomer competing against the most powerful money machine in American politics. We'll know just how close after the Obama campaign releases its own report and the Clinton campaign discloses how much of its first quarter take is earmarked for the general campaign.

But in the meantime, the media were happy to repeat the Clinton camp's pre-packaged story. The worst offender was Matt Drudge, who started off the day trumpeting the claim that Hillary had raised $36 million with the headlines: "AMERICA LOVES HILLARY -- TOP FUNDRAISER FOR ROUND ONE: $36 MILLION," and "Hillary in blowout with $36 million," and declaring her the "winner" of "round one."

Maybe Drudge happily declared her the "winner" because he shares the opinion that Hillary is the dream candidate for the GOP. Which means that, at least until the nomination, the interests of the Hillary camp and the right-wing media strangely converge with both sides celebrating her as an unstoppable juggernaut.

But the larger question is, why did the rest of the media go along with this charade? Because, as the Hillary camp presented it, the story is about as real as John McCain's casual shopping stroll in Baghdad.

First, you can subtract $10 million from her total right away, because that's the amount Hillary transferred from her Senate campaign. The money is real enough -- but she didn't raise it in the first quarter of this year. So it says nothing about her fundraising prowess as a presidential candidate.

That leaves $26 million, which includes money raised for the general election campaign. That money is not available for the primary. (Donors can give both to the primary and to the general election but money for the latter can't be used for the former). Why didn't Hillary disclose the amounts in her primary and general election accounts as John Edwards did?

According to Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, the campaign can't release the details because it wants to make sure the numbers are accurate. If you believe that, I've got some WMD from Baghdad to sell you. I guess $36 million wasn't enough for Howard to buy a copy of Microsoft Excel, because on any spreadsheet, the numbers for the primary and the general are automatically sequestered.

The other number the Clinton campaign withheld is how much cash on hand it has. After all, it costs money to raise money, hire staff and pay consultants. Hillary spent an incredible $37 million in a Senate race in which she barely had an opponent.

The story matters because, in politics, money matters. It's used mostly to buy advertising but also to bus troops to Iowa caucuses and fly the candidate from state to state. But what was missing from the fundraising coverage was any sense about what it means in a larger context. If Hillary is such a dominant figure in the Democratic Party, with access to all the biggest donors, why is she not dominating the money game? What does that mean?

One figure may hold a clue. Obama raised his money from 83,000 donors. Hillary raised hers from about 50,000. So Obama has many more donors and many more who have not given the maximum amount. In politics, the most reliable donors are those who have already given. So even if Hillary manages to come out on top in Round 1, as Drudge & Co. all have it, things may only get tougher in subsequent rounds. Is it too much to ask for someone to point that out?

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