Because of the “front-loaded” character of the primary system, which forces candidates to purchase enormous amounts of media time early in the race, a well-heeled candidate can sometimes literally win by losing, in the durable style of the old Russian army: Just pile up resources, and keep hanging in there until everyone else has to drop out.
As a senator from Kansas, a major supporter of farm exports, and a longtime member of the Senate Finance Committee (which functions rather like a high tribunal of tolls, taxes, and levies), Bob Dole commanded the GOP’s equivalent of the Russian army. Until recently a champion of fiscal orthodoxy, he had many friends on Wall Street, in houses such as Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch. While essentially a free trader, he had — like Clinton, but unlike his GOP rivals Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, or Phil Gramm — moved to accommodate big business’ increasing demand to pursue American commercial interests more aggressively. This flexibility paid big dividends: Despite a long courtship from the Clinton administration, top officials of all three automakers ended up contributing to Dole’s campaign.
Deeply involved in the revision of telecommunications law, Dole garnered far more contributions from this sector than any other GOP candidate. (Most of the regional Bells were ringing for him; broadcasters proved much chillier.) Dole was also as committed to defense spending as anyone in the GOP, and his refusal to bring minimum wage legislation to a vote in the Senate endeared him to retailers and wholesalers. Although some holes existed in Dole’s network (the computer industry, for instance, which did not go especially heavily for Clinton either), his base was much wider than any other GOP primary candidate’s.
Steve Forbes did not lack for money — his own, and that of supporters in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries and a surprisingly wide swath of Wall Street. But his concentration on the flat tax made him vulnerable to well-financed counterattacks, once real estate (which feared for its tax concessions), defense (which feared that flatter taxes implied flatter defense spending), and more orthodox financiers woke up to the challenge. Forbes’ aggressive support of Taiwan (a stance he shared with Buchanan) also drove a wedge between him and multinational businesses desperate to capture the Chinese market. After the Dole machine chewed him up in the Deep South and New York (where Forbes had to spend a small fortune merely to get on the ballot), Forbes thriftily withdrew.
At first glance, Pat Buchanan‘s campaign looks like the polar opposite of Forbes’. But it, too, reflected the preoccupations of one superdonor, Roger Milliken. The textile magnate — an opponent of NAFTA, U.S. trade policy with China, and unions — reportedly contributed at least $250,000 to The American Cause, the nonprofit controlled by Buchanan and his sister before Buchanan entered the race. Milliken also reportedly donated almost $2 million to the Coalition for the American Cause, which lobbied on trade issues and appears to have had close ties to The American Cause. He also contributed to Buchanan’s campaign, along with some rather small textile companies and a couple of sizable chemical concerns.
By concentrating his resources in a few early states (notably New Hampshire) and appealing to the religious right, Buchanan managed to reach just enough donors to create a splash. After tiny New Hampshire, however, his inability to resist playing to stereotype, along with a lack of resources and a hostile media, spelled doom.
Lamar Alexander came from the opposite end of the GOP spectrum, with very close ties to multinational businesses. His problem was that his rivals (Dole, Forbes, Phil Gramm, and even Richard Lugar) all had equally plausible claims to be considered free traders. Consequently, Alexander raised respectable, but not overwhelming, amounts of money from the traditional citadels of free trade: Wall Street, commercial banks, foreign multinationals (including Nissan, whose entry into Tennessee Alexander had spearheaded as governor). He raised similarly modest amounts from some of the usual GOP suspects (health care and chemical companies) and from cable companies, including giant TCI, which has a substantial presence in Tennessee.
At the crucial moment, as Alexander closed in on Bob Dole and Buchanan in the last weekend before the New Hampshire primary, he simply did not have the resources to blanket the airwaves with ads. Bob Dole, however, did. His campaign, far more concerned with Alexander in the long run than with Buchanan, focused its early attacks on the Tennessean, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads branding him a “tax-and-spend liberal.” According to the Boston Globe, before the ads ran, 44 percent of voters considered Alexander “conservative”; five days later, only 22 percent did. In the New Hampshire primary, this proved lethal. Facing giant, multistate media buyouts to stay in the race, Alexander briefly staggered on before folding his campaign. When Forbes checked out a few weeks later, the nomination became Dole’s by default. No one else had any money left.