Not every political dollar carries the same value, and by one measure the Republicans’ financial edge in the presidential race is less formidable than it appears.
Entering September, Mitt Romney, the Republican National Committee and two sympathetic super-political action committees had $165 million in cash -- and the former Massachusetts governor had direct control over less than a third of it, or $50 million.
President Barack Obama, the Democratic National Committee, and a friendly super-political action committee had $101 million in the bank -- and Obama controlled almost 90 percent of it, or $89 million.
“At this point, control of the money becomes important,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “We are at the stage where Romney has to focus on why he is capable of serving as president and what he would do if elected. Selling his policies depends more on the amount of money the campaign has rather than super-PACs.”
Romney is far better off than Arizona Senator John McCain was in 2008, when Obama outspent the Republican $730 million to $333 million, and the Republicans’ financial advantage may still influence House and Senate races. In the presidential race, though, both sides have “plenty of money,” former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said in a Sept. 21 interview on “Political Capital with Al Hunt.” If one side gains an edge, it will be measured by how well it can and does spend those resources -- a more complicated endeavor for Romney because he can’t legally coordinate with the two main super-PACs backing his candidacy.
From April 10 to Sept. 10, the Obama team ran more than 262,736 anti-Romney ads, compared to 242,097 negative ads aired by Romney, the RNC and Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, two super-PACs that take unlimited donations, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
During that period, Obama also aired 79,526 biographical commercials reminding his supporters why they voted for him four years ago. Romney and his aligned groups ran just 33,952 positive commercials about the former Massachusetts governor.
“There has been very little advertising focused on Romney and what he would do, and therefore they haven’t been very effective in re-introducing Romney to the electorate after the primary and providing information about his background and vision,” said Corrado.
Romney’s reliance on outside groups to balance his advertising also carries the risk that some of the groups -- most notably American Crossroads, which had $32 million in cash on Sept. 1 -- will shift resources to congressional races if Obama maintains momentum in the polls.
In a Sept. 16 National Public Radio interview, Jonathan Collegio, Crossroads’s spokesman, was asked if that could happen and he replied, “yes, but we’re nowhere near that at this point.” Collegio pointed to national polls showing the presidential race within one or two percentage points. Since then, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll last week showed the Obama with a five-percentage-point lead, 50 percent to 45 percent.
The Republican nominee is also outsourcing much of his voter turnout operation to the national committee, a traditional pattern for the party. That helps explain why the RNC is more flush than the candidate. According to recent financial disclosure reports, the RNC had raised $283 million -- just a million less than Romney -- and had $77 million in the bank.
Much of that money will be transferred to state party committees that will execute the ground game to get voters to the polls.
“We are entering the home stretch with the resources we need,” said Sean Spicer, an RNC spokesman. “We are well ahead of 2008.”
The RNC is focusing its effort on habitual voters who could be persuaded to back Romney. In Virginia and Ohio, RNC workers have contacted 3 million of those voters weekly. Similar calls are being made in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Yet, the party’s obligations extend beyond the presidential and some resources could be diverted to states where Republicans are fighting to retake the Senate. Many of those contests lie outside of the presidential battlegrounds.
In August, the College Republican National Committee initiated a $2 million program to organize young voters in 25 states to boost the prospects in Senate, House and governor races. The states targeted include North Dakota, California, New York and Massachusetts, states that aren’t in contention in the presidential race.
Obama’s ground game is being overseen by his Chicago re-election headquarters, with a focus on voter persuasion and boosting Democratic registrations through state-based offices and staff. The DNC for months has been transferring cash out of its accounts to build the voter turnout operation. The national committee has raised $233 million -- about half of the Obama campaign’s donations -- and had just $7 million in the bank at the end of August.
As a result of that early work, there now are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina and Nevada, according to the Obama campaign, and the pace for lining up new voters is ahead of 2008.
“We’ve always been up front about the fact that Mitt Romney and his allies will outspend us this cycle to shower the airwaves with ads,” said Adam Fletcher, a campaign spokesman.
“Our grassroots operation is driving this campaign, both as we expand our small-dollar donor base that is helping us maintain a strong presence on the air, and as we mobilize the massive, volunteer-driven organization we’ve built in battleground states that will make the difference when the votes are counted,” he said.
The escalation of the presidential campaign money race after both Obama and Romney opted to finance their campaigns with private donations is increasing pressure on both to continue raising money, which heightens the value of Obama’s small donor base to which he can return multiple times to gather contributions.
The president has raised a total of $441 million for his campaign and $163 million -- or 38 percent -- came from donors who gave less than $200. Romney has generated $284 million for his candidacy, of which $47 million -- or 17 percent -- came from small donors.
While lower-dollar contributors are a premium in both campaigns, big donors -- those who give the maximum $2,500 -- still in high demand.
“In an environment where anything can happen tomorrow, there’s never enough money,” said Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks political money. With the risk of an attack coming at any time from an opponent, on the Internet, or even from an anonymous billionaire, “the uncertainty and the pressure to raise money is much higher,” he said.
As of Sept. 18, Obama had attended 298 fundraisers for his campaign or party committees since taking office. President George W. Bush hosted 173 events in his first term while President Bill Clinton appeared at 167, according to an analysis by Brendan J. Doherty, a campaign finance expert at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Romney spent much of the past week wooing top donors. He held at least a dozen fundraisers in private estates, hotel ballrooms, and casinos. Between those events, aides sandwiched into the schedule three public rallies -- a Spanish-language forum, an address to a Hispanic group, and an impromptu press conference.
“President Obama and his campaign have had four years to lay the foundation for his re-election,” said Andrea Saul, Romney’s spokeswoman. Romney’s “schedule is packed from the beginning to the end of the day with campaign events, fundraising, meetings with voters and all the other things that go into a national campaign.”