Obama’s money gap: Incompetence, incumbency or meaningless?

August 21, 2012

Let's begin with the numbers.

The Obama campaign has $88 million in the bank. The Romney campaign has $30 million in the bank.

The Obama campaign plus the Democratic National Committee has $123.7 million in the bank. The Romney campaign plus the Republican National Committee has $185.9 million in the bank. And that advantage is increasing month-by-month. This chart from our friends over at The Fix compares the cash-on-hand levels for Obama + the DNC and Romney + the RNC in recent months:

What's more, the major Romney-affiliated superPACS have tens of millions more in the bank. American Crossroads, for instance, is sitting on $29 million. Restore Our Future is sitting on $20 million. Priorities USA, the major Obama-affiliated superPAC, is sitting on $4 million.

So here's what we can say with certainty: Romney is winning the money race. Big time. And he's pressing that advantage. According to NBC's First Read, "nearly $540 million has been spent in advertising in this presidential election, with Team Romney spending $292 million and Team Obama $248 million." Even as we speak, Team Romney is spending more than twice as much as Team Obama.

This raises two questions. First, why is the Obama team doing so horribly at fundraising? And, second, will Romney's cash advantage actually matter?

In the New Yorker, Jane Mayer argues that the Obama team is doing so horribly at fundraising because, well, they've done a horrible job at the literal work of fundraising. They've simply neglected to stroke and flatter their biggest donors.That goes from the big things, like granting them audiences with the president, to small things, like getting them pictures with the president. Mayer quotes one Obama fundraiser who says, “unlike Republicans, they have no business interest being furthered by the donation — they just like to be involved. So it makes them more needy. It’s like, ‘If you’re not going to deregulate my industry, or lower my taxes, can’t I at least get a picture?’ ”

In the New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai echoed Mayer's thesis that the Obama team has done poorly at the care-and-feeding work of fundraising, but says that the true culprit is the structure of this election, not the ego of the donors. After all, in 2008, the Obama campaign shattered all previous fundraising records. Bai notes that "the level of outside money increased 164 percent from 2004 to 2008. Then it rose 135 percent from 2008 to 2012." As it's become easier for small donors to get involved and for billionaires to write big checks, we might be entering a world in which challenger parties have a distinct advantage over incumbent parties. "It’s a function of human nature," Bai writes. "Nobody really gets pumped up to write a $10 million check just to keep things more or less as they are."

I think both Bai and Mayer get at part of the truth. But I also think that Romney's epic fundraising partially reflects another trend that benefited Obama in 2008: The financial class's tendency to gravitate toward the candidate that's most like them.

In 2008, Obama was most like them. He was a cool, cerebral, analytical, cosmopolitan, product of the Ivy League. He's the sort of guy who might well have had a successful career on Wall Street. After eight years of the Bush administration and faced with the prospect of four years of John McCain, Wall Street wanted someone who they thought of as like them to clean up the mess. And what Wall Street wants, they spend a lot of money to get.

But in 2012, Mitt Romney is most like them. In fact, Romney is them. He worked in finance. He has a business degree from Harvard. He shares their hatred of deficits, their belief that the rich are being unfairly blamed for today's problems, their conviction that their work is of great social value, their certainty that if only politicians were more like titans of finance and industry, the country would be in a far better place. Obama, meanwhile, doesn't seem to respect them that much. And if there's anything that's fundamental to the finance class, it is self-respect.

The question is whether it matters. Romney and the superPACs have outspent Obama. Yet Obama's lead has remained curiously persistent. Romney, in fact, has fallen further behind in the polls over the past month, and most operatives will tell you that he's in worse shape in the battleground states, which is where the vast majority of this advertising is going.

Now, perhaps Obama would be winning this in a rout if Romney didn't have a money advantage. And perhaps the Romney campaign will dump enough money on Obama's head in the final month or so that it will have a real and measurable impact in the polls. You can't rerun the past, and I don't have much information about the future. But for now, Romney's money advantage has not yet proven decisive.

SInce this post is ending on an ambivalent note anyway, let me return to Mayer's piece for a final comment. The article makes the case that the Obama administration in general, and the president in particular, have done a bad job keeping their donors happy. This is the sort of piece that Democrats read and despair. If you believe in what Obama is doing, the stakes are simply too high to lose because you didn't take enough grip-and-grin photos with high-rollers. And yet, there's something sick about this critique, too:

Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, says, “The whole question of whether the President’s donors are happy just boils down to how corrupting this whole system is. That the President, with all the other things on his plate, has to worry about keeping high rollers happy is just sad.”

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Sarah Kliff · August 21, 2012