As a dozen-and-a-half presidential candidates crisscross the country trying to vacuum as much money as they can before the June 30 deadline for the second-quarter FEC reporting period, they do so with a flurry of polls that are unquestionably shaping the attitudes of activists, party officials, political reporters and, most importantly, donors.
Unfavorable polls rarely force presidential candidates out of races, but campaigns do run out of money because the polls are unfavorable. That judgment day might be approaching for some of these candidacies.
On the Republican side, early predictions that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would encounter stiff and potentially insurmountable obstructions in his path to the Republican nomination looked a bit questionable two or three months ago. But now, with his declining poll numbers, it looks like those earlier doubts might be justified.
As recently as February and March, the former mayor's upward momentum was strong, defying predictions that his positions on social and cultural issues and potentially troublesome personal past would be fatal to his candidacy. But now, the downward slope in his support levels looks even sharper than his ascent had been earlier.
For Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the front-runner for most of last year whose numbers started dipping last fall, the most recent surveys show him not only dropping but falling into third place, behind former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., whose numbers are practically going straight up.
It's hard to imagine McCain's national numbers -- and equally unfavorable numbers coming out of key states such as Iowa and South Carolina -- not having a devastating effect on his fundraising, which had been tepid at best in the first quarter.
No question, Thompson is hot. Whether he can keep this momentum up and the expectations in check once he actually enters the race is a good question, but his rise is having a devastating impact on Giuliani and McCain.
To be sure, Thompson and his campaign have a lot of organizational spadework ahead of them, building an infrastructure that other campaigns built months go. But, catching up organizationally is a lot easier when your polls are headed up than when they are headed south. The Thompson folks have a terrific opportunity here; let's see if they can capitalize on it.
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's upward movement in the polls isn't nearly as great as Thompson's, it is steady. He raised an extraordinary amount of money in the first quarter and he has, along with McCain, the only full-scale campaign infrastructure on the GOP side.
Arguably only the campaigns of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., McCain and Romney have world-class political teams. While Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Giuliani each have some top-notch, "any campaign would love to have them" people in key places, they don't have the number or depth of first-rate talent on board that the first three do.
Romney raised a ton of money in the first quarter, but spent a big chunk of it on television in early states. He has now seen that turn into advantages in Iowa and New Hampshire that are leaving the Giuliani and McCain campaigns with their mouths agape.
Thompson needs to use his momentum to build what Romney already has.
While former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) has gotten favorable notices on the trail, he doesn't have the campaign behind him to capitalize on it and none of the other third-tier candidates appear even close to catching on.
If I were a betting man, my money for the GOP nod would be on either Romney or Thompson.
For Democrats, Clinton's lead is holding, while Obama's once impressive upward momentum appears to have stalled over the last couple of months. The only strong growth on the Democratic side is for former Vice President Al Gore, who unquestionably would love to have the Democratic nomination but few believe he'll fight for it.
If the nomination were offered to him on a silver platter, he would probably snatch it in a nanosecond, but the Democratic contest, unlike the GOP fight, has no vacuum. Indeed, it is a bit oversubscribed, and Gore would have to fight for the Democratic nod. It looks extremely unlikely that he will be headed to Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina anytime soon to fight for it.
While not sexy, the Clinton campaign seems to be the proverbial "three or four yards and a cloud of dust." They are organizationally strong, featuring a political focus and discipline that matches that of the candidate.
Obama is still attracting an impressive amount of curiosity and interest and will probably turn in another impressive quarter of fundraising, meaning that he is still a formidable rival for Clinton. But what looked like a juggernaut two months ago is now starting to look like a very impressive and promising first date, but with the second and third dates likely to be less fulfilling.
We're now in a vicious-cycle phase of the campaign, where money buys (via advertising and organizational efforts) strong poll numbers, which in turn attract more money, which then permits even greater advertising and organizational outreach.
These two fields are about to winnow down very quickly.