In 2008, the combined Republican field — led by Romney, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — had raised nearly $310 million and spent $278 million of that through the early January contests, according to data from Malbin’s research. The figures include $42 million in money that Romney poured into the race from his personal bank account.
Those numbers have been halved in 2012, with $146 million raised and $133 million spent by GOP presidential candidates through Jan. 31, the data show. Romney has not contributed his own money this time around.
This year’s crop of hopefuls does have a new financial weapon in the form of super PACs, which are technically separate from the campaigns but can raise unlimited amounts of money on their behalf. The groups have had an inordinate influence on the primary race by dominating ad spending in many of the early primary states and helping to keep such long-shot contenders as Newt Gingrich in the game.
Nonetheless, even the monied super PACs haven’t closed the gap in spending compared with 2008. The top six GOP super PACs spent about $37 million on behalf of their favored presidential candidates through January, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Super PACs’ impact
David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, which favors public financing of campaigns, noted that weak fundraising by candidates has served to amplify the impact of super PACs, which would have had much less influence if they had existed in 2008.
“There seems to be very little excitement among voters in the donor class about these candidates,” Donnelly said. “What that gets replaced with is this new phenomenon of people writing huge checks in support of the candidates. You’re replacing excitement with those who have a huge amount of money.”
Candidates have yet to report their official February fundraising totals to the FEC, but all signs point to another modest month. The Romney campaign has said it raised $11.5 million and spent about as much, while former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) says he raised $9 million on the strength of several primary victories.
During the same month in 2008, by comparison, Obama brought in $57 million and had $39 million in cash on hand heading into March during his epic primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), FEC reports show. Obama is unlikely to come anywhere close to that total in this campaign.
The surge of spending by super PACs this year has prompted calls for greater restrictions on such groups, which were ushered into existence by a series of court rulings that upended decades of campaign-finance regulations.
But Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman who heads the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes many campaign-finance regulations, said the relatively low fundraising and spending levels this year suggest that the criticism is misplaced.
“Much of the outcry over these decisions really is not warranted,” Smith said. “The idea that we would be awash and drowning in political ads has not really come true.”
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.