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Obama’s money: How big an advantage is it?

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In his first six months of active fundraising, President Obama has raked in $90 million for his 2012 re-election campaign not to mention an additional $65 million for the Democratic National Committee.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 22: One million dollars in $100 dollar bills is displayed at the Money Museum in the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago June 22, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

While not all of the Republican presidential candidates have filed their fundraising reports for the third quarter, it’s a certainty that Obama’s $43 million haul will be more than the combined total for all of them over the past three months. (Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to lead the Republican field with $17 million raised between July 1 and Sept. 30.)

Those numbers make clear that Obama is head and shoulders above the Republican field when it comes to the size — and efficacy — of his cash collection operation. But, how much does his current advantage really matter?

That depends on how you look at the race.

What’s clear — and has been since his 2008 race when he collected $750 million — is that Obama is the pre-eminent political fundraiser of his time.

Given that, it’s a virtual certainty that he will both raise and spend considerably more than whomever Republicans nominate. More money means more television ads, more direct mail, more people on the ground in swing states — in short, more of everything that can help a candidate win.

You only need to look back to the 2008 election for evidence of how much money matters. While Obama was raising $750 million, Arizona Sen. John McCain accepted public financing — limiting himself to $85 million in taxpayer-funded cash. The result was a blitzkrieg of Obama ads in every swing state, often running an eight-to-one spending advantage in key targets like Florida over the final two months of the campaign.

While Obama would have won the presidency even without such a pronounced cash advantage, it’s almost certain that it would not have been as sweeping a victory as it was.

All that said, there are also a handful of reasons why Obama’s current cash lead may well be less important than it looks at first glance.

First, Obama is the only game in town when it comes to raising cash for the presidential race on the Democratic side. Republican donors, meanwhile, are splitting up their dollars among eight (or more) aspirants — making it tough for any one to really put a huge fundraising total together.

This is not a phenomenon unique to this election. Back in the 2004 presidential race, Democrats were the side with the crowded field. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the eventual Democratic nominee, raised just $4 million in the third fundraising quarter of 2003 while President George W. Bush brought in $50 million. For all of 2003, Kerry raised $25 million while Bush collected $132 million.

But, once it became clear that Kerry would be the Democratic standard-bearer, the money began to roll in. After raising $15 million in January and February 2004 combined, Kerry raised $44 million in March and another $31 million in April.

“Without doubt, once the GOP nominee is certain and assuming the candidate is somewhat credible, the GOP nominee will fundraise at a comparable, or even accelerated, pace with the President’s fundraising,” predicted Jackson Dunn, a veteran Democratic fundraiser.

Second, it’s a very likely that the Republican nominee will opt out of the public financing system, allowing him or her to if not match then remain within financial shouting distance of the incumbent. In other words, the days of a $665 million spending advantage for Obama are a thing of the past.

“The Obama campaign’s early fundraising is significant — that’s an advantage of incumbency,” longtime Republican fundraiser Steve Gordon wrote in an email to the Fix. “But both sides will have plenty of funding for the general election.”

Third, the lurking giant of ideological-aligned super PACs amounts to a huge unknown when assessing the financial playing field for 2012.

Unlike candidate committees, super PACs, which began cropping up in the 2010 election, are able to accept unlimited donations from individuals — making the task of raising tens of millions of dollars far easier.

American Crossroads, the dominant organization on the conservative side of the aisle, has pledged to raise and spend $240 million on the election next November — a massive sum that would significantly bolster the eventual GOP nominee. And the famous/infamous Koch brothers have said they will spend $200 million (at least) on 2012.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s campaign is being supported by a super PAC that collected $12 million in its first few weeks of operation, and could raise far more if it became clear he was the nominee.

President Obama, too, has a super PAC working on his behalf. Priorities USA Action was founded earlier this year by two former Obama White House aides and has set a $100 million fundraising goal for the election.

Super PAC spending seems likely to be in the $1 billion range (if not higher), a sum that will put it on par (if not above) the raising and spending going on at the candidate level.

Make no mistake: President Obama’s $90 million haul over his first six months of active fundraising is a major accomplishment that gives him a clear lead in the ever-important dash for cash. But it’s not as insurmountable an edge as it might appear at first glance.

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