President Obama’s real opponent in 2012

September 18, 2012

With total television ad spending on the presidential race now having crested $500 million, the real fight on the airwaves is not between President Obama and Mitt Romney but rather between President Obama and a cavalcade of conservative-aligned outside groups, according to an analysis of ad buy information provided to the Fix.

As of Friday evening, Republicans had spent $314 million on ads with Romney accounting for just 27 percent ($86 million) of that total. Democrats had spent $277 million on ads with Obama accounting for 80 percent ($222 million) of that total.

To put those big numbers in simpler terms: Only one in every four Republican/conservative ads that has run this election cycle has been paid for by Romney while four in every five Democratic ads have been funded directly by the Obama campaign.

There are two major reasons for this huge inequity.

1. Romney spent heavily from his primary account to win the Republican nomination. So while he could raise money for the general election all summer, he couldn't spend it until he formally became the GOP nominee at the party's national convention last month. That reality meant that Romney had to depend heavily on super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups to keep him competitive on the TV airwaves in swing states over the spring and summer months since Obama had no primary challenge and could spend funds freely during that period. (To be clear: Outside groups -- on both sides -- can't coordinate with their party's candidate.)

2. Obama's discouragement of outside Democratic groups in the 2008 election and his slow adoption of their necessity this time around ensured that the Republican outside financing world was far better organized and funded than their Democratic counterparts. To date, Priorities USA Action, the leading pro-Obama super PAC, has spent $51 million on TV ads. Republicans have four groups (Restore Our Future, Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity) who have each spent at least $40 million on ads.

No matter the reasoning for the spending disparity, it's clear that without the likes of American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and Americans for Prosperity, Romney might not even be within shouting distance of Obama in both national and swing state polling today.

In fact, in six of the nine states broadly accepted as tossups, total Republican spending has eclipsed total Democratic spending, a fact almost totally attributable to the largesse of Republican outside groups. (The three states where Democrats have outspent their GOP rivals are Colorado, Ohio and New Hampshire.)

If conservative outside groups kept Romney in the game -- some will debate that characterization, but we believe this still has the makings of a very competitive contest -- then it will be up to the candidate's own campaign to seize the spending baton in the final 49 days.

Romney raked in more than $100 million in each of the last three months and should be able to outspend Obama rather significantly in the final weeks of the race. That goes double when you consider that the outside groups on the Republican side won't simply stop spending because Romney now has the money he didn't over the last few months.

At issue: With so much money being spent on both sides in the final weeks of this campaign, is Romney's advantage on the airwaves lessened? Or can he use what could well be a two-to-one spending edge between now and Nov. 6 to reshape the race?

Romney's 47 percent problem: Romney has a significant problems on his hands thanks to his remarks at a closed-door fundraiser.

Mother Jones on Monday pointed to a series of videos from May showing the GOP presidential nominee saying some pretty blunt and semi-controversial things about race (saying he would have a better chance to become president if his dad were Mexican) and Obama supporters (stereotyping them as government-dependent moochers).

"There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it," Romney said. "That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them."

(The publication is out with another video this morning in which Romney says that Palestinians are "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel.")

After the flap quickly escalated into a headache for the Romney campaign, a press conference was hastily called Monday night in which Romney stood by the jist of his remarks.

"It's not elegantly stated," he said. "I'm speaking off the cuff in response to a question."

Obama's campaign responded Monday by saying that Romney is not looking to be president of the whole country.

Of course, the roles here were once reversed. It was just four years ago that Obama was recorded at his own closed-door event talking about how people "cling to guns and religion" when things don't go well in their lives.

The parallels between the two situations are striking; both feature the candidate inartfully characterizing people who support the other team. Of course, Romney's comments will be much more important to this campaign, given that they aren't four years old.

And given all the problems Romney is dealing with right now, you have to wonder when the hits will stop coming.

Fixbits:

Super PAC benefactor Joe Ricketts says he will spend $10 million to help Romney and $2 million to help GOP congressional candidates through his Ending Spending Fund super PAC.

Joe Biden says he's "a good vice president."

A third poll this week shows Elizabeth Warren (D) overtaking Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Suffolk University shows her leading 48 percent to 44 percent.

The Sierra Club, which usually backs Democrats, endorses independent former governor Angus King over Democratic nominee Cynthia Dill in the Maine Senate race.

Former congresswoman Heather Wilson's (R-N.M.) Senate campaign released a poll showing her trailing by five points. National Republicans recently pulled their money from the state.

Democrats are up with a strong new ad hitting Rep. Denny Rehberg (D-Mont.) for his comments on lobbyists.

World Wrestling Entertainment, which has reportedly scrubbed the Internet of some of its racier content as former WWE executive Linda McMahon (R) runs for Senate in Connecticut, has now gotten an online site to take down a web video from the Connecticut Democratic Party that features some of those clips.

The Democratic House Majority PAC super PAC is launching $1.3 million worth of ads in districts held by Reps. Bobby Schilling (D-Ill.) and Charlie Bass (D-N.H.), in the race between Reps. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) and in former congressman Jay Inslee's (D-Wash.) district.

A new Siena College poll shows Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.) leading Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney 46 percent to 33 percent.

Must-reads:

"Mitt Romney’s September challenge" -- Dan Balz, Washington Post

"Ryan proposed automatic defense cuts in earlier budget plan" -- Lori Montgomery, Washington Post

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Chris Cillizza · September 17, 2012