Even adding this year’s spending by super PACs — a new kind of independent group that can raise millions of dollars at a time — the Republican contenders spent more cash in 2008 all on their own.
The numbers, tallied through the end of January, complicate the widespread portrait of the 2012 campaign as an example of political spending run amok. While many voters may feel overrun with negative ads, every primary season since the 1990s has featured more spending than the current contest, records show.
The totals also underscore a persistent enthusiasm problem that has dogged this year’s GOP presidential hopefuls, most of whom haven’t come close to raising as much money as the top candidates did in 2008. Romney, despite being the presumed front-runner, has actually brought in donations at a slightly slower pace than he did four years ago, when he was considered an underdog in a well-funded field that included a veteran U.S. senator and a former New York mayor.
Even Obama, who does not have to fight a primary opponent, has begun to lag behind the pace he set in 2008, when he became the most successful fundraiser in U.S. political history.
Strategists, fundraisers and campaign-finance experts offer a variety of explanations for the tepid fundraising, including a weak economy that has strained donors’ bank accounts and, on the Republican side, a more extended primary season. But most agree that the biggest reason appears to be a lack of excitement among Republican donors at all income levels, many of whom have remained on the sidelines as the GOP primary battle drags on.
“The most important factor has just been the weakness of the Republican field,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “You did not have candidates run that were well-known, with well-established bases of financial support. . . . Even with the super PACs, this is not a race where you’ve seen record amounts of money being spent.”
Surge still expected
Few expect the fundraising drought to last into the general-election campaign, which still appears likely to rank among the most expensive ever. Once the Republican nominee is chosen, most strategists predict, party donors will quickly rally around the candidate and produce a surge of money to go up against the Obama campaign. The surge will be augmented by money from super PACs and other outside groups, which will have an easier time raising money than they did in previous election cycles.