In Money Race, Obama Has the Advantage

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama will head into the general election with the ability to raise significantly more money than his Republican opponent, an extremely rare position for a Democrat and one that could give him a huge advantage in mobilizing supporters, reaching voters and competing across the country.

Party leaders say they expect Obama to surpass the more than quarter-billion dollars he amassed during the primaries, buoyed by a fundraising list with more than 1.5 million names, an uncommon knack for attracting money online and the expected addition of scores of established bundlers who helped bankroll Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign.

Obama's advantage, which could stretch into the tens of millions over Republican Sen. John McCain, would allow the senator from Illinois to build a far more robust field operation and let him drench radio and television airwaves in a much broader array of states, including those where Democrats do not traditionally compete. He would also have enough money to enjoy the luxury of making mistakes, whereas any poor choices McCain makes would be felt much more acutely.

"From my vantage point, the enthusiasm is there, and for the first time we're seeing the [Internet] fundraising and the traditional fundraising both pulling the rope the same way," said Mitchell Berger, a Florida lawyer who helped oversee fundraising for President Bill Clinton in 1996 and for Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and who is raising money for Obama. "More than any time in my memory, Democrats are ready to go."

While not all of McCain's aides and supporters agree that Obama will substantially outraise him this fall, they said the senator from Arizona is uniquely positioned to wage a lean, underdog effort, much as he did in the Republican primaries. They said his knack for parlaying late-night television appearances and free-wheeling bus tours into free media attention have proved that money is not the only way to win.

"Senator McCain has demonstrated he can run a competitive campaign without spending as much as his opponents," said senior adviser Charles R. Black Jr. "He just finished demonstrating it."

McCain also appears confident that his fundraising will continue to accelerate. Yesterday, campaign manager Rick Davis announced that McCain will air ads in 10 swing states, including costly markets such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, from now until November. Davis called it "the single most significant ad buy since this election cycle began two years ago."

McCain campaign officials told reporters yesterday that their fundraising will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which had more than $53 million in the bank at the start of the month; in comparison, the Democratic National Committee had less than $5 million on hand.

Republicans have enjoyed a fundraising advantage in the modern era of presidential politics, and only Democrats backed by the power of incumbency, such as President Bill Clinton in 1996, have been in a position to compete.

In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush raised $95.5 million during the primaries, almost double Gore's $48 million. And during the general election, when both candidates accepted an equal share of federal funds, the RNC outraised its Democratic counterpart by almost $120 million, according to Federal Election Commission records. The pattern continued in 2004.

This year, that pattern has flipped. Obama has raised $265 million over 15 months, and he had $46 million on hand at the end of April. McCain finished the same period having raised $96 million. He raised another $21.5 million in May and finished the month with $31.5 million in the bank. Obama has not released May figures.

While McCain appears poised to accept $85 million in federal money for the general election -- funding that will kick in after he formally accepts the nomination in September -- Obama has not indicated whether he will honor an earlier pledge to do the same. His top fundraisers say they expect him to forgo the funds in favor of raising money with no upper limits.

Their confidence in Obama's ability to far exceed the federal amount stems in part from discussions with top Clinton fundraisers, who helped bring in $214 million for her bid. "I was talking to them all day yesterday and today," Berger said. "They're not difficult conversations."

Several veteran campaign strategists from both parties said Obama's potential financial edge could emerge as a significant barrier for McCain, particularly as the two candidates start to organize efforts in key battleground states.

McCain will have to consider the expensive advertising costs in places such as New Jersey and California when deciding whether to try to compete there, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

"If I'm McCain, I've got to be a little intimidated by the kind of money Obama can raise," Tracey said. "I mean, McCain basically has got to outmaneuver Obama. He's got to guess right on issues, timing and markets pretty much every time between now and November."

Mike Stratton, a Colorado-based Democratic political consultant, said money could prove more important in 2008, because both Obama and McCain intend to make strong appeals to independent voters and in more states than in previous elections.

"I think they'll both find they have lots of states that are not locked in, states where both camps have the ability to play, and they'll have to decide how to spread out their resources," Stratton said.

Scott Reed, a Washington political strategist who managed Sen. Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996 and is close to McCain, said the candidate is no doubt aware of the financial impediments he faces.

"This will not be a traditional button-down campaign; McCain cannot afford that," Reed said. "I think you can expect to see the old playbook thrown out the window."

Reed suggested that an early example of this is McCain's offer to hold a lengthy series of town-hall-style discussions with Obama. "Bringing the circus to town brings you a week of free media," he said.

He also predicted that McCain would name his vice presidential pick early, in part to generate media attention during a normally quiet period during the summer.

Meanwhile, the RNC has begun preparing for the enhanced role it will play if McCain takes public funding after the party's convention. RNC officials said they have been investing heavily in the voter files and commercial data that allow them to narrowly target their appeals to various groups of voters. The party has also moved quickly to establish a Victory Fund program that enables it to raise money in tandem with the candidate and with state committees.

Democrats have launched a similar program, though the DNC's fundraising efforts have lagged. Officials there say that has been largely a result of the protracted primary. This week, the party also invoked rules matching Obama's self-imposed restrictions on not taking money from federal lobbyists and political action committees.

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan said that while McCain probably will not have as much money as Obama, he will have enough to be competitive. "A year ago, people were writing him off," Duncan said. "He proved that the person with the most amount of money doesn't always win."

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