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The Influence Industry: In race for campaign cash, everyone claims to be outmatched

You’d think that Jim Messina would have been in a pretty good mood last Saturday, when President Obama’s reelection campaign reported that it was close to raising $1 billion for 2012.

But before long, Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, was sounding the alarm bell.

Deputy Editor, National Politics View Archive

“Outside groups are flooding the airwaves with negative ads trashing President Obama and everything we’ve accomplished together in the past four years,” Messina wrote in an e-mail announcing the impressive fundraising haul. “Over the course of the next week alone, these groups are planning an unprecedented negative ad blitz in battleground states across the country.”

In the race for campaign cash, it seems, everyone is an underdog.

Both Obama and his challenger, Republican nominee Mitt Romney, are certain to surpass the $1 billion mark in resources between their campaigns, parties and outside allies. The benchmark will easily make Obama and Romney the two most formidable political fundraisers in U.S. history.

Yet both sides routinely cast themselves as paupers in danger of being outspent by a monied opponent. In fundraising pleas, supporters are told that another $5 or $13 or $25 is all that stands between the candidate and victory in November.

“One billion dollars,” began a fundraising e-mail on Monday from Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades. “For the first time in history, a political campaign will hit the billion-dollar mark.. . . Liberals will not give up their power easily, so it’s imperative that we all come together to stand up against them.”

In reality, neither side is hurting much for money. Even if the two candidates ceased all fundraising today, 2012 would rank as the most expensive presidential general election ever, largely because both have opted out of a public financing system used by previous candidates.

The Obama campaign says it raised $181 million in September with the Democratic National Committee, marking the best fundraising month of the cycle. The total is just shy of the record $193 million collected by Obama and the DNC in September 2008.

The bounty puts Obama and the Democrats on a path to exceed $1 billion raised for 2012, which is more than they raised in 2008. The main difference this time is that Obama has not raised as much cash directly for his own campaign as he did in 2008, relying more on larger checks collected by the DNC.

Romney has yet to release his September fundraising total, but he had raised about $640 million with the Republican National Committee through the end of August, disclosure records show. Although he has brought in less overall than Obama and the Democrats, Romney raised more in May, June and July and nearly matched Obama in August.

But Romney’s key advantage comes from outside his campaign, where a well-funded network of conservative groups has been able to collect unlimited checks to pay for a barrage of television ads. The combination has put Romney’s side at rough parity with Obama and his allies in spending so far, according to disclosure records and advertising estimates.

Yet the hard sell continues. Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, told supporters this week that “the billion-dollar Obama juggernaut won’t go down without a fight.” Vice President Biden, meanwhile, warned that the GOP was in the midst of “a $23 million week-long ad blitz attacking Barack in 10 battleground states.”

“Our organizing depends on budgets and those budgets depend on you, right now,” Biden continued in a fundraising e-mail. “This campaign needs to make critical decisions this week, and with just 28 days to go, there’s no ‘I’ll get to it later.’ If you’ve been waiting for the right moment to chip in, now is the time.”

Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, said that “saying you’re threatened is a proven way to raise money” in politics. He noted that by approaching $1 billion, each of the presidential candidates will spend about as much as all major U.S. Senate candidates spent in 2008 and 2010 combined.

“It strikes me that President Obama and Governor Romney each will spend more than enough to be heard,” Malbin said. “I do not know if there is ever a point of complete saturation, but we’re clearly in the land of diminishing returns.”

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