The surprise return of Reverend Jeremiah Wright to the 2012 campaign as part of hypothetical plan to paint President Obama as a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln” may be an amusing story, but it’s a sideshow to the real takeaway of the week: Republicans’ impressive fundraising.
In 2008, Obama dominated John McCain with unprecedented campaign cash, too much to spend effectively at once, leading to luxuries like a half-hour network infomercial in the final stretch. But Democrats are facing the very real prospect that 2012 will see their message drowned out in a wave of Republican cash.
The most ominous sign so far: a $25 million ad buy from Karl Rove-connected American Crossroads, whose super PAC and related non-profits are well on track to meeting their goal of raising $300 million before Nov. 6. That matched the Obama campaign’s own $25 million opening ad buy, providing cover for Romney as he recovered from a depleting primary and the president’s re-election team put its $100 million-plus war chest into action.
Super PACs have long been a nightmare concern for Team Obama. And while Democrats are more likely to mock than fear the over-the-top, race-baiting ad campaign considered (and apparently rejected) by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, the proposal is yet another frightening reminder that they’ll be up against any number of eccentric conservative billionaires who can casually throw tens of millions of dollars into the race.
In a conference call announcing their first general election ad buy earlier this month, Obama strategist David Axelrod pledged an aggressive response to the “Koch brothers’ contract killers” and to “treat every ad that comes from those entities as an ad from Gov. Romney.” They put that plan into action this week, unveiling a three-minute video responding point by point to Crossroads’s latest missive and successfully demanding Romney repudiate Ricketts’s Wright proposal on Thursday. The campaign has also worked hard to shut down any loose speculation of a $1 billion campaign on their end, which OFA campaign manager Jim Messina dismissed in a video to supporters as “bullshit” designed to discourage Democratic fundraising.
But those are all defensive moves. It’s unclear to what degree Democrats will be able to go on offense. Priorities USA, a super PAC tasked with aiding Obama’s re-election, has proven alarmingly weak at raising money from wealthy Democrats, gathering $2.5 million in March despite a public appeal for cash from Obama aides in February. While they’ve yet to release this month’s figures, there are signs they’re picking up after surprising observers with an impressive $4 million ad buy attacking Romney on Bain Capital.
Republicans usually point to organized labor’s big bucks when outside money comes up, and there’s no doubt it will give Democrats a boost. AFL-CIO officials expect that unions will likely contribute similar amounts as previous cycles, which was about $100 million in 2010, per the Center for Responsive Politics. They too benefit from the Citizens United decision that opened the door to unlimited third-party cash, as they’re now allowed to expand their ground game to include non-union members, which organizers are hoping will strongly boost their effectiveness.
The outside money game is “likely to skew towards Republicans, but we won’t know for sure until the numbers are in,” Rick Hasen, a law professor and campaign finance expert at UC Irvine, told TPM. “There are questions about how much unions and others on the left will be able to come up with.”
Overall, though, Republicans — and especially Romney — have proven more adept by far at raking in game-changing amounts from big donors. Romney’s own fundraising is also catching up fast: He raised $40 million in concert with the RNC in April, close to Obama’s $43 million in the same period and leaps and bounds ahead of his $12.5 million haul in March.
While detailed FEC reports are not yet out, there are a number of likely reasons for Romney’s surging fundraising. Republicans who supported other candidates and others who sat on the sideline, are likely rallying behind the presumptive nominee. Another possible boost: Romney has struggled with small donors this race and many of his top backers have already given the maximum amount allowable to a candidate, $2,500. But now that he’s fundraising with the RNC, supporters can give up to $75,800 to a Victory Fund operated by party, potentially opening up a huge new well of cash.
It’s not entirely clear how these unprecedented amounts of money will affect the presidential race. After all, there is a saturation point when it comes to advertising where an extra million on top of hundreds isn’t likely to reach anyone it hasn’t already, and both sides could hit that limit. The bigger impact may be on down-ballot races, which will help determine the effectiveness of the next president regardless of party.
“Somebody dumps $15 million on the presidential election and they won’t be overwhelming the race,” Hasen said. “But $15 [million] on a Senate or congressional race will be huge and have a major effect, especially with control of the Senate up for grabs.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.