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Campaign watch: The final push for big money gains

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Photo by Dreasmstime

Now that the political conventions are over and Election Day is less than nine weeks away, the money race has gone from high gear to warp speed. In 2008, President Barack Obama broke all money-raising records. This year, however, he is playing catch up to the formidable Republican campaign finance juggernaut.

For voters in states considered safe for either candidate, say Oklahoma for Republicans and New York for Democrats, the evidence of this money will hardly be seen. But for those voters in toss up states, whether they are Iowa, Florida, Colorado or Ohio, the onslaught of television ads, telephone calls, pollsters and all sorts of electioneering is about to head into overdrive.

The conventions have traditionally marked the time when the Presidential race is officially underway and the heavy campaigning begins. On the Republican side, it means that Romney can now begin to spend some $185 million that he had been precluded from using under campaign finance rules until he was his party’s official nominee. On the Democratic side, previous efforts to steer clear of raising super PAC money on principle were brushed aside at the convention when Rahm Emanuel, the campaign’s honorary co-chair, stepped down to begin working for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that had been badly trailing its Republican rivals.

For campaign finance reporters, the conventions closing presents a good time to step back and take a hard look at the amounts raised by the two sides – money that must be spent between now and November if it is to have any value. The scorecard shows Democrats trailing Republicans by $60 million. This includes money raised by the two candidates, the super PACs that support them and the Republican and Democratic national committees. Super PACs operate outside of the official campaign and allow donors to give more money to support a candidates than the limited amounts that they can give directly to candidates or party committees under campaign finance law.

Both sides have already raised more than a half a billion dollars each: A total of $587 million by Democrats and $524 by Republicans. But there the resemblance ends. Democrats have been sending heavily and are now left with $131 in cash-on-hand. By contrast, Republicans have spent far less, which has given them a war chest of $197 million.

New fund-raising data shows that the Obama campaign and various Democratic committees have outraised the Republicans for this first time in three months — $114 million in August for the Democrats compared to $111 million for Romney and Republican committees. The Republicans have raised triple digit millions over the last three months to support Romney, while the Democrats have been in the double digit million range on behalf of Obama.

Yet it would be too early for the Obama campaign to break out the champagne. Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, issued a press release saying that in spite of this fund-raising uptick, Obama was still getting “thrashed” by Republican super PACs that operate outside the official campaigns.

outside spending

A graph outlining outside spending totals from Open Secrets.

He has a point: The two big Republicans super PACs, Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, have vowed to raise $500 million before the election is over. For months, the two super PAC have been beating the drums for Romney, efforts that have been credited with helping him win the GOP nomination and elevating his profile nationally. The lone Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, has raised only $25 million to date, which is why Emanuel was brought on board. His task is to go after heavy hitters who can write six and seven-figure checks. As before, Obama has relied on a network of small donors. A total of 53 percent of his donors gave under $200, compared to 22 percent for the Romney campaign. So it is the big dollars that both sides are now targeting in the final weeks.

While the outcome of the Presidential race remains uncertain, one thing is already known – for better or worse. The clear winner in campaign 2012 is outside spending, with super PACS taking the lead.

Statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains campaign finance data, show that outside spending by super PACS, nonprofit groups and other non-party entities by the end of the conventions had already exceeded the amount spent in the entire 2008 Presidential race. The record $300 million spent by outside groups in 2008 was already shattered by the time the last confetti was swept from the convention floor.

About the Author

Leslie Wayne is an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University and New York University. She's a former award-winning business reporter at The New York Times where she covered Wall Street, politics, banking industry regulatory reform, municipal finance scandals and the aerospace and military industries. Wayne was selected as the inaugural Donald W. Reynolds visiting professor in Business Journalism at Arizona State University in 2010.

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