Even a phalanx of well-funded conservative super PACs hasn’t been able to stockpile enough money to rival Obama, who had nearly $85 million in his campaign bank account at the end of February, records show. Several of the key GOP super PACs also have seen fundraising numbers decline, even in the heat of a nomination contest.
The figures suggest a new possibility: that super PACs could have a more limited impact on the general election than it appears from the Republican primaries, where they have dominated spending in part because most of the candidates have raised relatively little.
“I think there’s a real possibility that super PACs won’t be that important in the general election after all,” said Bradley A. Smith, a former Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Election Commission who advocates fewer restrictions on political spending. “Obama’s got a huge amount of money, and he will probably vastly outspend Romney, assuming he’s the nominee.”
Both sides, of course, are furiously spinning the numbers to their advantage. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina warned last month that Democrats would be buried in an “avalanche” of negative super PAC ads, and urged donors to step up in response.
Republicans, meanwhile, cast the Obama operation as a juggernaut that could raise $1 billion or more, and portray super PACs, fueled by wealthy donors, as a vital tool allowing conservatives to close the gap.
“The Democrats are saying, ‘We’re going to be seriously outgunned here, we’re David and they’re Goliath,’ ” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. “But the side that’s supposed to be Goliath is saying, ‘No, they’re the ones with the Hollywood money and the union money. They’re the real money machine.’ Each side has its own spin.”
Super PACs and other independent groups have clearly played a pivotal role in the Republican primaries, which have been much less expensive overall than previous contests. A pro-Romney group has repeatedly crushed his opponents with negative ads in key battleground states, while other super PACs have helped Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich keep their shoestring campaigns alive.
But the groups have spent nearly all the money they have raised on the grinding nomination battle, meaning that whomever survives will effectively have to start over once the choice is settled. That will require soliciting even more six- and seven-figure checks from the mega-wealthy donors who have formed the backbone of the conservative super PAC operations.