At the time of writing, there are 19 men and two women at large in the United States who think they could and should be president. Mostly they believe this because, thus far, they have persuaded their fellow Americans to donate $523.3 million to a contest that makes fantasy football look rational.

It’s early days, of course. A lot more money will be spent on poisonous TV ads before 19 of the 21 come to terms with their delusions. The pair who remain will then spend much of 2016 talking about democracy while burning through another ton of cash. Then a little over half of the people entitled to vote will decide which candidate distresses them least.

It’s easy to mock. Anyone who thinks the buying and selling of American politics is bad, sad, or mad should probably recite the magic words “House of Lords” before getting too carried away. There are sound reasons, nevertheless, why the presidential game is mockable. In fact, there are roughly seven billion reasons.

According to the Federal Election Commission, that was the dollar cost to “parties, candidates and other organisations” at all levels in 2012. It worked out at around $55 for each of the votes divvied up between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, though – perhaps fortunately – no voter was asked if she or he would rather have the 55 bucks.

You've a choice, meanwhile. Either you find the influence of money in US politics depressing, or you find it comically depressing. The idea that a Donald Trump could buy his way to office is a bleak one. The prospect of 'The Donald' spending millions, much of it his own, just to have his rear dropkicked by voters almost evens things up. Since, “Republican front-runner” or not, his butt is at severe risk, you might say the system works.

It doesn’t, of course. The American habit of ascribing moral authority to money has been rotting politics for a long time. It’s amusing that Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who made his name robbing state employees of their rights, could raise $33.6 million before realising he wasn’t demented enough for the demented wing of the Republican Party, but this is not the kind of thing a grown-up country boasts about.

Money ensures that two-party politics endures in America. Fragmentation, insurgencies, new parties: these are European enthusiasms. They fail to flourish in US elections for seven billion reasons. Control of money, especially in the age of the “super PACs” - political action committees - means candidates are lured like moths to candles. Lucid or lunatic, the aspirant must wear the party badge, even when the party resembles a paranoid rabble.

The parties are conduits for cash. Since a federal court decision in 2010, those PACs have run riot. There is no limit to the money they can raise (generally from corporations, sometimes from unions) or any limit on what they can spend. They are forbidden, however, to hand cash straight to candidates, or – as though anyone believes this – “co-ordinate spending” with candidates. In 2012, undaunted, these “outside groups” got through $579 million.

So it is that Jeb Bush leads the Republican field, in one sense, with $133.3 million raised. Fully $108.5 million of that is derived from PACs. Clearly, the former Florida governor would be his own man in all things if he made it to the White House. The numbers say big Republican money has spoken. Yet what did the polls show after the latest debate between the party’s leading candidates? With just 7% support, Bush is trailing fourth.

Fourth, that is, among Republicans. Weirdly, the most recent polls say this loser could fight Hillary Clinton to a dead heat. He is the son of a president, the brother of a president, eloquent enough (by Bush standards) with a record in Florida of allegedly getting things done. He has all that money. If he could thin the field and get rid of most of a dozen rivals, the Republicans could be in with a shout.

They’re not, and neither is he. Bush is not swivel-eyed. He doesn’t pander well enough to the fundamentalists. He has been elected to office before, but that’s a hindrance, these days, not a help. He is a solid establishment figure who has been known to compromise: that’s as good as a kiss of death. Should he somehow win the nomination, Bush will have the profoundly reluctant support of people who despise him.

Note the disparity between the fortunes raised by this hapless candidate and his poll ratings. It amounts to a snapshot of the state in which Bush’s party finds itself. To the big money he’s the obvious candidate, a figure liable to appeal to the supposedly independent voters who can be persuaded to vote Republican if they are not being scared witless by folks who think Trump talks a lot of sense, or believe that Ben Carson is a deep thinker.

The Donald still leads the wacky racers despite his own best efforts. At the latest debate this “fiscal conservative” struggled (as you do) to explain how he would cut taxes by ten trillion dollars without harm to America’s gigantic deficit. He floundered over the assertion that he would simply deport 11 million unregistered immigrants. And Trump has 26.8% in the nomination polls to Bush’s 7%.

Carson is running second, though one recent New York Times survey had him in first place, despite – or because of? - his suggestion that Jews could have prevented the Holocaust if only they had owned guns. The fate of the Warsaw Ghetto, like a number of other historical facts, is of no interest to a former neurosurgeon who really shouldn’t be allowed near anyone’s brain. It makes no difference to 22% of those surveyed.

Anti-abortion? Of course, and that includes cases of rape or incest. Gun control? Hardly. Same sex marriage? The difference between gays and bestiality escapes Carson. He has meanwhile glanced at the science of climate change and concluded that warming is no fault of the human race.

The leading pair differ from the field only in terms of style, such as it is, and emphasis. All understand what is wanted by the conservative heartland. Last week, they united for an attack on “the mainstream media” simply because the Fox News audience expects and demands as much. In that world much of America is a conspiracy against the one true American idealism. Unhappily for them, that America also votes.

Does the money get the candidate it has paid for and a long-desired fight to the political death with Clinton? Or do ordinary Republicans, spurning evolution or same-sex marriage, climate science or gun control, wind up with an improvising bigot like Trump? The world might wish to tremble in either event.

After a ramshackle debate, US commentators attempted to position junior Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as the latest conservative hope. The reasoning seemed to be that an ability to utter mild platitudes with conviction is at a premium. Rubio said all the usual right-wing things as though they had just come to him: a triumph. Clearly, you don’t get much for $7 billion these days.