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Photo: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Having lots of money at the beginning of a presidential race — or even at the end — matters much less than it did in the past.

Be smart: President Trump probably could have won in 2016 with no money. You can’t put a price tag on free Twitter coverage, free cable coverage and all the stories flowing from both.

Expand chart
Data: Federal Election Commission; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

The big picture: Huge out-of-the-gate dollar advantages for Hillary Clinton in 2008 or Jeb Bush in 2016 didn't help them over the finish line.

  • There's a long history of rich people trying and failing to win elections with money: Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Linda McMahon, etc.
  • Such presidential follies go all the way back to Ross Perot in 1992, and are likely to be continued by Howard Schultz this cycle. David Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president in 1980!

The bottom line: In many ways, the money primary is not important because money is important, but rather because it helps determine which candidates are taken seriously by the media.

A bare minimum of money is necessary to staff a campaign, keep it on the road, and keep its vital functions on track — although Trump might have effectively disproved even that. Beyond that bare minimum, money tends to go in two directions: consultants and TV ads.

  • Candidates still spend the lion's share of their funds on TV ads, because that's where the boomers are, and boomers are very likely to vote. But TV ads are hard to target effectively, and they always come at a premium: Many swing-state local TV stations are happy to lose money three years in a row, just because they know that presidential election campaigns will be like money from helicopters.
  • TV ads have never been less effective in terms of persuading the electorate whom they should vote for — because the electorate has never been this polarized.

In 2020, earned (free) media will, once again, be of paramount importance. And this time, the earned media that matters will increasingly be social — especially Facebook and Instagram — rather than TV.

  • While some people are persuaded by TV, many more are persuaded by their friends and peers.

Go deeper ... 2020 presidential election: Track every candidate's Q1 fundraising totals

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Donald and Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

2 hours ago - Podcasts

Google's chief health officer Karen DeSalvo on vaccinating America

Google on Monday became the latest Big Tech company to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations. Not just by doing things like incorporating vaccination sites into its maps, but by helping to turn some of its offices and parking lots into vaccination sites.

Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.