Obama goes the private route to all-time leader in fundraising

Election 2008

October 19, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington - Any day now, Barack Obama will become the first candidate to rake in more than half a billion dollars.

Money matters in elections, as John McCain was painfully reminded when he tried to watch pro football on TV last weekend.

"Every other ad was an attack ad on my health care plan," he complained.

That dollars fuel American politics is hardly news. When George W. Bush took over the family business of running for president, his strategist, Karl Rove, predicted the new boss would wow the world with his fundraising prowess.

Bush tapped lucrative networks, starting with the cash machine his father painstakingly built over 15 years as a presidential candidate. On top of that, George W. piggybacked his own connections: associates in major league baseball, the oil business, Texas politics and a generation of baby boomers who had never been politically active before.

The result: Bush became far and away the most prolific campaign fundraiser in U.S. history. After a record haul of about $100 million, all in donations of $1,000 or less, Bush wound up in the Oval Office. Four years later, as an incumbent, he banked $259 million.

Obama has shattered those records, seemingly overnight. He arrived on the national scene barely four years ago, roughly the same time he and his wife paid off their student loans.

Even more important than his jaw-dropping total is the way the money's being collected and spent.

Roughly half has come in donations of $200 or less, thanks to the maturing of the Internet. Obama's campaign relentlessly e-mails its donors, who number in the millions, asking for another $10 or $20 at a time. (As recently as Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, there was no e-mail in politics because it was not widely used yet.)

Obama is using his war chest to clobber McCain with TV and radio commercials, and the Republican has seemed helpless to respond.

According to a recent University of Wisconsin Advertising Project analysis, Obama has aired at least 50,000 more commercials than McCain. On Oct. 29, he'll become the first presidential candidate since Ross Perot in 1992 to run a half-hour, prime-time infomercial on major TV networks.

Obama's success as a money magnet came at a steep price, at least in the eyes of reformers. He was the first presidential nominee to opt out of the public financing system, breaking a campaign promise in the process.

The public system, created in response to the Watergate scandal, was designed to contain the influence of big money in politics and level the playing field by limiting the nominees to the same overall amount of spending.

Obama's decision to quit that system means he can spend unlimited amounts and is constrained only by limits on individual donations. And it's likely to become the norm.

"Every candidate will have to seriously consider" opting out in the future, said Frank Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Top Republican officials, as well as some outside campaign finance specialists, had figured that McCain would be able to neutralize Obama's money advantage.

"We expected to be competitive," said Donatelli, estimating that the party will raise as much as $120 million for the national campaign.

Instead, Obama appears to have gained the most lopsided financial advantage by a presidential candidate since Nixon's 1972 re-election.

The throw-weight of Obama's arsenal isn't the only difference. He also has a competitive edge when it comes to content.

A wave of new Republican attack ads against Obama are funded jointly with McCain's public dollars and private money raised with the RNC, but they are hampered by rules that force each "hybrid" commercial to target congressional Democrats along with Obama, a clumsy combination that dilutes the impact of the message.

Obama, by contrast, is free to focus his ads strictly on his opponent. Maintaining complete message control was one of the reasons his advisers gave for going private.

There were also predictions that Obama would be distracted by the need to solicit donations, at the cost of time better spent campaigning. But these days the Republican ticket seems at least as busy chasing private dough for their party's stretch drive.

The size of Obama's spending advantage won't be fully known until after the election, when final disclosure reports are filed. But the difference is increasingly obvious.

His campaign manager has put a $39 million price tag on Obama's effort in just one key state - Florida. By contrast, McCain has $85 million for the entire country, forcing difficult choices that are making it harder to close the gap in the polls.

When McCain complained about that deluge of Obama ads during that football game, he left out an important fact: He saw no ads at all for his own campaign.

He was in Virginia, one of a handful of states that could decide the election. For the better part of at least two weeks, McCain has run no ads in Northern Virginia, a crucial battleground, while Obama has been saturating the airwaves.

Rove, in the latest electoral map on his Web site, put Virginia into Obama's column and gave the Illinois Democrat a total of 313 electoral votes, well above the 270 needed to win.

If those numbers hold two weeks from Tuesday, it will be due in no small measure to Obama's success in rewriting the fundraising playbook.

His chief strategist, David Axelrod, who would replace Rove as the nation's reigning political Svengali, is enjoying the reversal of fortune for Democrats, who typically get outspent.

Awash in cash, "we've been able to do everything we wanted to do," he said.

Axelrod, a veteran of countless campaigns, was asked when the last time was that he found himself in that position.

"Never," he replied.

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