Barack Obama’s recent surge in the presidential race has been credited to a rise in voters’ concerns about their money. It helps that Obama himself has a lot of money.
Spurning federal funds -- and the spending restrictions that go with them -- the Democratic nominee has racked up an enormous cash advantage that he is using to dominate the television airwaves.
The week before last, Obama outspent Republican nominee John McCain in all of the most competitive states, save for Iowa and Minnesota, where he has a comfortable lead in recent polls.
More significantly, Obama has used his financial edge to turn once-reliable GOP states into hard-fought battlegrounds. In that same week, according to an independent study, Obama outspent McCain by more than 8 to 1 in North Carolina and 3 to 1 in Indiana. No Democrat has won either state in more than three decades.
Obama has “stretched the playing field,” said Edward Carmines, who teaches political science at Indiana University. “Now, in the last month of the campaign, Sen. McCain is having to make very tough decisions where to spend his money.”
Obama’s financial edge results from his decision to become the first candidate to forgo public funding since the federal system was adopted in 1976 after the Watergate scandal. McCain accepted $84.1 million from Washington, and that is all he can spend. But the Illinois senator rejected the taxpayer money, betting he could raise a lot more. And he has.
Obama had more than $77 million in the bank on Aug. 31, the close of the last reporting period, and is on a pace to raise at least $100 million more by election day. That would mean a cash advantage over McCain of better than 2 to 1.
In a sign of his flush finances, Obama plans a half-hour prime-time broadcast on CBS and NBC on Oct. 29, the first time in years that a presidential candidate has made such a substantial investment in national TV. Ross Perot, a billionaire who bankrolled much of his own campaign, drew an audience of 26 million to his 1992 simulcast on ABC and CBS.
Obama’s money advantage adds to the already tough climb McCain faces in the final three weeks of the race. Polls have shown momentum shifting strongly in the Democrat’s direction as the economic crisis has come to dominate the campaign. McCain has another chance -- perhaps his last, best one -- to reverse the direction of the race when the two men meet in their third and final debate Wednesday in New York.
At the start of the presidential campaign, common wisdom was that a candidate would need to raise $100 million to compete seriously in the early primaries. Obama, with his Internet-fueled fundraising machine, easily shattered that mark on the way to upsetting Democratic rival New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In all, Obama has raised $454 million through August; he will easily top $500 million by election day. McCain collected $210 million in coming from behind to win the GOP nomination.
Early last year, Obama indicated a willingness to accept federal funding and abide by spending restrictions for the fall campaign. As late as spring, an Obama spokesman said the Democrat would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”
But there was no such effort and Obama announced in June that he would opt out of public funding. Obama took a risk that his image as a reformer would suffer. McCain criticized the move and his aides have periodically raised the issue. But it has never gained much political traction.
Garry South, who managed the 2002 reelection bid of former California Gov. Gray Davis, is not surprised. Davis collected a then-record $78 million and was attacked throughout the campaign for his prodigious fundraising.
“Voters don’t care,” South said. “They’re cynical and jaded about political money in any respect and every respect. And for one politician to say, ‘I’m holier than thou,’ to another politician never works.”
Most of the money Obama raised is being spent on TV ads, the most expensive part of a campaign and one of the most crucial.
From Sept. 28 through Oct. 4, Obama outspent McCain by more than 3 to 1 on TV ads in Florida and Virginia, 2 to 1 in New Hampshire and Missouri and 3 to 2 in Nevada, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which independently monitors spending on campaign commercials.
The study found that Obama spent just less than $17.5 million on TV ads that week, compared with just less than $11 million by McCain and the Republican National Committee. The RNC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums, has been supplementing McCain’s TV ad budget in several states. The committee raised a record $66 million in September.
But the advertising disparity is even larger than those figures indicate. If the Republican Party pays for half the cost of a McCain ad, then half the content is required to be general in nature, promoting, say, the GOP or its members of Congress. So, even in those states where McCain has equivalent dollars, “we don’t have equivalent time,” said one Republican ad maker who did not want to be identified discussing the challenges facing the party’s nominee.
Obama has also benefited more than McCain has from spending by supporters who are advertising on the candidates’ behalf.
Since Labor Day, the traditional start of the fall campaign, independent groups have spent nearly $15.8 million to support Obama, or oppose McCain, more than double the $5.4 million spent on behalf of McCain, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The largest amount of pro-Obama spending has come from organized labor, led by the Service Employees International Union, which has spent $7.7 million since Labor Day. Other unions have pushed organized labor’s pro-Obama expenditures to more than $10 million, all of it in battleground states including Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri.
Other than the Republican Party -- which has spent almost $10 million since Sept. 1 -- the biggest group promoting McCain has been the National Rifle Assn., which has spent $3.2 million to help elect the Arizona senator.