Money gap may not matter so much in November

July 11, 2012

Top Obama officials would have you believe they are in desperate financial trouble. Their e-mailed pleas for cash bleed with urgency: “We could lose if this continues.” “A big problem right now.” “This is no joke.”

The Obama campaign raised $71 million in June along with the Democratic Party, according to its own figures. That’s $35 million less than Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican Party, which said they brought in a combined $106 million last month.

In a note to supporters Tuesday, President Obama sounded the alarm: “We’re getting outraised — a first for a sitting president, if this continues.”

That assertion, however, appears at odds with history.

The gap in fundraising is widening, but it’s not surprising. In 2004, Democratic challenger John F. Kerry outraised President George W. Bush every month after picking up the Democratic nod.

Romney, as Kerry did before him, has been able to use frustration with the incumbent to his advantage. It’s often easier to create the fervent enthusiasm needed to get campaign donors to part with their money when running against a sitting president rather than pitching them on another four years.

All told, Bush, the Republican National Committee and the two biggest independent groups supporting him spent $786 million in the 2004 election cycle. That compares with $845 million for the Democrats, a spending advantage of about $60 million.

In 1996, Republican challenger Robert J. Dole raised $351 million along with the RNC, compared with $251 million raised by President Bill Clinton and his party. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan and the RNC took in almost five times as much as President Jimmy Carter and the DNC.

Obama’s e-mail went on to decry “the super PACs and outside groups that are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into misleading ads.”

Eight years ago, President Bush faced similar efforts. In 2003 and 2004, liberals unleashed a barrage of attack ads against Bush and even funded a ground operation with hundreds of staffers in swing states (something conservatives have not matched this year). The top two interest groups funded by liberal millionaires and billionaires spent $135 million to back Kerry, or about half as much as his campaign budget.

Obama probably will be similarly outspent in the end, but given the near-parity in bank accounts on both sides, it won’t make much difference.

“Nobody’s going to win or lose this election on the basis of not having enough money,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. “Each of them is going to have around $700 [million to] $800 million available. The idea that that’s not enough is just bizarre.”

By contrast, the recently nominated Green Party candidate Jill Stein has raised $148,497 so far.

The two major-party presidential candidates are benefiting from an enormous amount of media attention that will get their messages out to voters free of charge. By Election Day, only the most reclusive of shut-ins won’t know these candidates and their platforms.

Further, there are some factors lurking behind the top-line numbers that indicate Romney’s money may not go as far as Obama’s.

Both candidates have begun soliciting checks of up to $75,800, but only $5,000 of that money can go to their campaigns. The rest gets parceled out to the accounts of the national party and its state affiliates, who are largely responsible for setting up offices in swing states and organizing person-to-person voter contacts.

Romney has been much more reliant on wealthy donors to fund his campaign, meaning he’ll have more donors crossing the $5,000 limit and therefore more money going to the party. But laws control how much of that money can be spent under his direction.

Obama gets several benefits by working so aggressively to court his small donors, now numbering 2.4 million and counting. First, those legions of supporters who have given money are more likely to also chip in with their time, making phone calls and knocking on doors. Second, the small checks mean more of their money will be going directly to Obama's campaign, giving him direct control over the funds and his advertising message.

Also, Obama can return to the same donors over and over, while Romney could be forced to take time off the trail this fall to court fresh well-heeled supporters.

Neither campaign offered comment.

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