Take the contenders for this year's Republican nomination. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm raised more than $20m (pounds 13.3m) each last year. Steve Forbes has put up $25m from his own family fortune. Lamar Alexander raised $10.5m; Pat Buchanan $6.5m; and the rest - Richard Lugar, Bob Dornan and Alan Keyes - have scraped barely $6m between them.
Messrs Lugar, Dornan and Keyes are completely out of the running. Why they continue to compete, in the knowledge that humiliation will be their only reward, is a mystery. Small wonder that political operatives say that "money is the first primary".
How much does it cost to be president? Or even to fail to become president? A candidate's overt spending on a primary campaign can be up to $35m. The federal government funds the campaigns of the major parties in the autumn to the tune of $60m each. But something like the same again is required in so-called "soft" expenditure, which evades the official limits and has to be raised from private - mostly business - donors. Failed primary campaigns included, the total cost of this year's race could be well over $400m, by far the most expensive in American history.
Of the five serious Republican contenders, Mr Gramm provides the most compelling evidence that it is not enough in itself to be a great fund- raiser. It was Mr Gramm who boasted that he had the most "reliable friend in American politics - money".
But he lags way behind Mr Dole and Mr Forbes in the polls.
The first lesson of the Forbes fairy story, on the other hand, is that if you can afford to blitz the airwaves with campaign advertising impossible dreams might come true. The second lesson is that while Mr Forbes's appeal derives in part from his simple "flat-tax" message, it also comes from projecting himself as a political ingenu free of the taint of Washington dirty money.
Opinion polls may fluctuate but one poll result that remains steady is Americans' dissatisfaction with a system of government that rewards special interests above the man and woman on the street. The "special interests" are the corporations that provide election candidates with 70 per cent of the funds necessary to sell themselves on television and radio.
While Mr Forbes is himself a walking corporation, the advantage he enjoys over his rivals is that he owes no favours to anybody but himself. Mr Dole and Mr Gramm and Mr Alexander have spent the last year scrounging from people who fully expect a reward for their investment. The same goes for Mr Clinton, who has managed to accumulate a campaign war-chest of $27m.
Mr Clinton's decision last month to veto a bill which would have damaged the interests of wealthy lawyers was not unconnected, for example, with a dinner in the White House a few days earlier attended by wealthy lawyers who had contributed more than $100,000 to the Democratic campaign fund.
Mr Dole and Mr Gramm, senators both, have raised as much money as they have because their legislative track-record is peppered with votes in favour of bills which have improved the profits of their corporate backers. Their admirers, like Mr Clinton's admirers, say they are all fundamentally honest men trapped by the misfortune of operating within a bad system. Yet it is a system which none of the parties displays any great zeal to change. Which is why Mr Forbes - who has not yet had the opportunity to change anything - is doing better than expected, and why the race for the White House remains, first and foremost, a race for the big money.
JOHN CARLINReuse content