While it’s still nearly a year until the Iowa Caucus, one primary already is well under way: The money primary. Candidates are lining up donors and raising money as fast as they can get their grubby little hands on it. No question about it, this will be the most expensive election in history, with the real possibility of $1 billion or more being spent. Notice that Hillary Clinton wasted no time in stating that she would reject the federal matching money — and the limitations that come with it — for both the primary and general election. That was intended to send a clear message: You have to pay if you want to play, and this race is for the high rollers only.

In the past, early poll numbers could be turned around, and long shots could come out of nowhere — or even Arkansas — to claim the brass ring. But that was a different era, when the primary schedules were stretched out over months and face-to-face retail politics played a bigger role for a longer amount of time. Now, with more and more states looking to move their primary dates up, it’s very likely that both parties’ nominees will be decided after just a few weeks. It looks like the earliest states will narrow each field down to two or three finalists, and then it will be an all-out media blitz across the country. In order to be one of those finalists, a candidate has to prove his or her viability with cold, hard cash.

The $100 million figure has been tossed around as the entry fee for the serious contenders. While that might be on the high side, it demonstrates the problem facing many of the candidates in the second tiers and lower: If they can’t convince donors right now that they have a strong chance of ultimately winning, it makes it that much more difficult to generate the kind of money needed to be considered viable. So this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you look beyond the top two or three candidates on each side, the numbers they need to worry about now aren’t just their poll numbers but, directly related to that, their account balances.

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