By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Sen. John McCain stepped into a ballroom at the Grand Hyatt in New York last night for what was likely to be his last fundraiser of the 2008 presidential campaign.
But while the event, which was expected to net $8 million to $10 million for the Republican National Committee, will provide a much-needed infusion for the GOP nominee, it will do little to whittle down the massive financial advantage that Sen. Barack Obama is using to dominate the electoral landscape.
Exactly how much money the Democrat has raised will not be clear until next week, when the two campaigns are required to report their September fundraising totals to the Federal Election Commission, although some strategists are openly speculating that he could approach $100 million for the month. That would shatter a record Obama set in August, when he brought in $67 million.
As the first presidential candidate to run a general-election campaign entirely with private donations, Obama is building a significant fundraising advantage and is now using that imbalance to swamp McCain on the airwaves and in building turnout operations coast to coast.
Voters in large swaths of Florida will see Obama television commercials dozens of times before catching sight of a McCain ad. A drive across Virginia will wend past 51 Obama field offices, compared with 19 for McCain. "It's given them resources to compete in multiple battlegrounds in all dimensions -- on the ground, through the mail, with media, everything," Chris Kofinis, a Democratic political strategist, said of Obama's fundraising success. "I think people will look back and say this was one of the most pivotal decisions in his campaign."
Since accepting $84 million in public funds, McCain has been barred from raising money for his own campaign. He has sought to keep pace with Obama's effort by holding RNC fundraisers like last night's event in New York. The party committee raised $66 million in September and has begun to expand its presence on television with ads featuring blistering attacks on Obama.
At the same time, the RNC is leading an effort to challenge the legality of millions of dollars in "un-itemized" donations that Obama has collected. Under FEC rules, his campaign does not have to document the names of donors who give less than $200.
The RNC is keeping a growing list of phony donors and unexplained credit card charges that it believes point to more than a simple inability by the Obama team to keep track of all the money flowing in. Steve and Rachel Larman, a Missouri couple who vote Republican, told local reporters that they found a $2,300 charge for a donation to the Obama campaign on their credit card statement that they could not explain. Patricia Phillips, a Virginia Republican, had a similar experience, she said, when she opened her MasterCard statement last month to discover a $5 charge from the Obama campaign. "I thought, 'Oh, my! This is not from me,' " she said.
Other donations have arrived under such obviously bogus names as Edrty Eddty and Es Esh.
Experts called it a common problem on an uncommon scale -- while there have always been donors who, for a host of reasons, tried to circumvent federal election rules and give campaign contributions without providing their real names, they are more frequent with Obama because of the volume of donations his campaign is processing.
"I'm sure they have a system in place to screen out improper donations," said Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman. "Their problem is they have such a massive donor base and so many of these coming in that it's hard to keep up."
Obama campaign aides said they have followed a policy of sending immediate refunds to people who contact the campaign to say that they have been charged for a contribution they did not make. "While no organization is protected from Internet fraud, we have taken every available step to root out improper contributions, updating our systems when necessary," said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman.
So far, the complaints have not prompted FEC action. And Obama's controversial decision to forgo public funding and instead raise money on his own is paying huge dividends.
The most noticeable evidence of his spending advantage has been on the airwaves, where, in some states, Obama been running seven or eight times as many commercials as McCain. Evan Tracey, an analyst with the Campaign Media Analysis Group, called the disparity stunning.
"McCain's in a shouting match with a guy holding a bullhorn," Tracey said.
Obama booked nearly $4 million in ads in Virginia last week, compared with $487,149 spent there by McCain. He held a similar spending edge in almost every battleground state, Tracey said, enabling him to respond to negative ads by McCain while keeping a regular cycle of positive ads running as well.
Obama has so much money available that he is continuing to push into advertising venues rarely, if ever, visited by political candidates. He has plans for a prime-time infomercial -- the first of its type since Ross Perot used the format 16 years ago. And Advertising Age reported yesterday that an Obama "in-game advertisement" appeared in the EA video game Burnout Paradise. The racing game features a Barack Obama billboard announcing that early voting has begun and references VoteForChange.com, a site paid for by the Obama campaign.
Republican political strategists have acknowledged the Obama advantage, but they argue that if a financial edge is all it takes to win an election, McCain would not be the nominee. (He was massively outspent by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani during the primaries.)
The biggest difficulty for McCain, said Republican political consultant Kevin Madden, is that he has been forced to play defense in states -- such as North Carolina and Indiana -- where he should not be spending money at all at this point.
"The campaign with the money can pin the other campaign down in places where they don't want to be," Madden said.
One result of Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system is that his campaign accounts will not automatically be subject to an audit after the election, as is standard with campaigns financed from the U.S. Treasury.
Last week, RNC lawyers filed an FEC complaint that they hope will prompt an investigation and audit. The complaint said the RNC believes that the Obama campaign "has accepted prohibited foreign national contributions and knowingly done so through its failure to reasonably investigate contributions originating abroad."
Obama aides dispute this, saying they have bent over backward trying to root out illegal contributions. But that task, they said, has been made difficult by the sheer volume of contributions, many in increments of $5 and $10.
The campaign has taken a number of steps to intercept illegal contributions, whether they are from people using fake names or from donors who are not U.S. citizens, Obama aides said. The campaign has initiated procedures to flag questionable contributions and follow up with donors to determine whether those contributions are lawful or should be refunded.
"Every campaign faces the challenge of screening and reviewing its contributions," LaBolt said. "And we have been aggressive about taking every available step to make sure our contributions are appropriate, updating our systems when necessary."