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By Jay Cost

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On Thompson's $3 million

I was intrigued by yesterday's story in the Politico about Fred Thompson's fundraising figure. It was not the figure that intrigued me. Rather, it was the reaction to it that flagged my attention. Mike Allen writes:

Fred Thompson plans to announce Tuesday that his committee to test the waters for a Republican presidential campaign raised slightly more than $3 million in June, substantially less than some backers had hoped, according to Republican sources.

The $3 mil is clearly a disappointment, if the Politico story is to be believed.

But should it be?

I don't have the answer to the preceding question - which is exactly the point. There are several problems with these reactions of disappointment.

1. Fred Thompson is not a declared candidate. There are many implications to this fact, but a big one is that he does not have a robust fundraising organization just yet. Mike Allen's Politico article quotes anonymous sources essentially saying that, with all of the buzz about Thompson, he should have been collecting money hand over fist. This is nonsensical. Support in a poll does not necessarily translate into financial support. The candidate must help with the translation. Thompson does not have the infrastructure to do that just yet, nor does anybody expect him to. If they do not expect him to have the infrastructure necessary for fundraising, why do they expect him to have the funds raised?

2. $3 million a month since June works out to about $23.5 million before the Iowa caucus. Thompson will have less cash than Romney or Giuliani if he keeps this pace (which, importantly, he won't - he'll improve). But who is to say that this is not enough to get him some wins in early states? The expectations for Thompson differ from the expectations for Giuliani or Romney. If he wins an early state, that might be enough for him to catapult to the nomination. Thompson might not need the cash. Importantly, this is the first time we have experienced a primary fight such as this cycle's. We do not know how much cash will actually be needed. You might be able to do it on the cheap (fiscal conservatives should love to see that - wasted money is still wasted money, regardless of who spends it!)

So, I think these expectations might be too high.

On the other hand, whether or not expectations are proper - they are what they are. This, I think, is one of the negative consequences of starting late in the cycle. If Thompson had raised $3 million last December via his exploratory committee, people would not have raised an eyebrow. The trouble for Thompson is that December '06 was not his committee's first month. June '07 was. Political elites are going to infer incorrectly that Thompson should be raising as much as the rest of the candidates simply because that's what elites do. We can blame them for having faulty expectations - but that misses half the story because, whether they are right or whether they are wrong, elites are major players in our politics. That's why we call them elites!

I think there is great potential for Thompson here. I like the idea of running a presidential campaign that violates many of the elites' assumptions about what you need to do to win. I think many of them can be violated, and victory can be achieved. In fact, I think that violating some of these assumptions can give you an advantage at the ballot box. Violating assumptions excites and entices people. It is an easy way to generate attention and support - even from the elites who hold the assumptions. For instance, I think it is possible to win a nomination having declared after Labor Day - which is what Thompson intends to do. What's more, I think that a late declaration could generate enthusiasm and momentum precisely when it is useful. I think it is smart to be the only major candidate to declare after Labor Day.

However, one thing Thompson will have to do very well is manage the expectations of these elites. If he is going to be a non-traditional candidate, that means he will be doing things contrary to the way elites currently think things should be done. If he also appears weak to elites, they will connect the non-traditional campaign to the weakness, and he will begin to see stories like yesterday's. In other words, the non-traditional campaign - while there is a lot of promise to it - has the potential for peril. It offers elites an easy "meta-frame" to characterize and understand his various failures. This is why Thompson needs to manage the perceptions of these failures so intently - because elites will waste no time fitting any mistake, real or imagined, into a broader, and broadly negative, story that hinges upon the fact that he is running a different kind of campaign.

Unfortunately, Thompson has not managed elite perceptions of his campaign on these smaller matters effectively. And they are beginning to add up. Personally, I do not think any of the "problems" that have arisen are much more than problems of perception. For instance, I can forgive a few internecine battles in a new campaign organization. Heck, they make perfect sense to me. However, the media spun these as "Thompson's control-freak wife is impossible to deal with, and his non-traditional campaign is spinning out of control." This is where the non-traditional nature of the campaign actually damages Thompson - it is a fast-and-easy way, one that does damage to Thompson's image, for elites to understand these "problems."

And, of course, two observations enables one to draw a trend line. There were staff troubles and now there are money troubles. That's enables a trend line - with a downward slope - to be drawn.

Don't think that Mike Allen did not pick up on the trend. He continues:

Thompson plans to make the disclosure in a filing with the Internal Revenue Service, as he continues to operate his prospective campaign as a political organization that does not require disclosure to the Federal Election Commission.

Many Republicans had seen the "Law & Order" actor and former U.S. senator from Tennessee as a potential savior in a tough election cycle.

He attracted support from such top-shelf party figures as Mary Matalin, Liz Cheney, George P. Bush and other GOP stalwarts who saw him as a potential Hillary Clinton slayer.

But many Republicans have turned queasy as Thompson has ousted part of his original brain trust and repeatedly delayed his official announcement, which is now planned for shortly after Labor Day, in the first two weeks of September.

Allen even finds a third observation for the trend line - the "repeated delays" of Thompson's official announcement.

As I indicated, I think this is underdetermined. All of the evidence is explicable by causes that are unrelated to one another, and that are not signs of worry for Thompson supporters. However, this is is not going to discourage political elites, especially those in the press. They formulate all kinds of underdetermined hypotheses. They put together stories even if there are no stories to be put together. They draw inferences not because they are necessary but because they are interesting. They see change where there is stasis. They characterize candidates in unfair ways because those ways are titillating. And so on. It's what they do.

Thompson needs to work hard to manage these elites because, by being non-traditional, he already has raised their eyebrows. He's doing what they think he should not do. This puts a greater burden on him than, say, Giuliani to manage his image. Giuliani is basically following all of their rules of campaigning, so his individual "mistakes" are not so easily fitted into this kind of narrative. But Thompson's are.

As I said, there is potential here - all of us like to see the rules thwarted successfully. On the other hand, mistakes, real or perceived, will be connected, rightly or wrongly, to his against-the-grain strategy. So, while the potential benefits are great, so also are the potential costs.

Thompson needs to work harder to minimize these costs. What he needs to do is cultivate the impression that his campaign is non-traditional and effective. This essentially boils down to better image management - not of himself, but of his campaign.

-Jay Cost