The recently leaked recording of a conference call among President Obama and some of his top 2008 campaign donors sparked a new round of less-than-rosy headlines about the president’s fundraising. On the call, Mr. Obama didn’t mince words: With donations pouring in to Republican "super political-action committees" and the Mitt Romney campaign, Obama said he is on track to become the first sitting president in modern history to be outspent by his opponent.
In fact, Obama’s campaign has been making this claim repeatedly, in a battery of urgent fundraising pleas during the past few weeks. Republicans, in turn, have been accusing the president of crying wolf – pointing out that his campaign holds the advantage in cash on hand over Mr. Romney’s.
So who’s right? Could Obama – who famously shattered all fundraising records back in 2008, collecting nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars – actually lose the money race this time around? Or is he just trying to instill fear in the hearts of Democratic donors who have been reluctant to pony up?
The short answer: Yes and yes.
Obama may wind up being outspent, but he’s still ahead in fundraising for now (we think – though the activity of some outside groups is murky enough that it’s hard to be totally definitive). What seems more certain is that the president won’t wield anything like the overwhelming cash advantage he had over Sen. John McCain in 2008. Instead, 2012 is shaping up to be a very competitive fundraising battle that will probably break a variety of records.
Here's attempt to answer some of the questions – and puncture some of the myths – surrounding the candidates and the fundraising efforts on their behalf.
Answer: Certainly, Obama – who has spent more time fundraising to date than any of his White House predecessors – can hardly be described as cash-poor. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee together have raised $461 million this campaign cycle (through the end of May). That’s way ahead of the combined $298 million raised by Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Romney is picking up the pace, however. In May, Romney and the RNC pulled in almost as much as Obama and the DNC, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, and June could be even better for Romney. (The Romney campaign has hinted it will report a June haul of $100 million, which would be a historic – and for Democrats, pretty demoralizing – amount.)
Question: How much of an advantage are super PACs providing for Romney? And what exactly are they, again?
Answer: Super PACs – outside groups that are technically forbidden from coordinating with the campaigns, but can raise and spend unlimited sums – are already helping to level the playing field for Romney.
Looking at just the two biggest super PACs most closely associated with the candidates, it’s clear what has the president and other Democrats so worried.
Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Romney, raised $61 million through the end of May, two-thirds of which came from 50 extremely wealthy donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But it seems likely to raise far more in months to come. Its top donor, Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who recently gave the group $10 million, has said he may ultimately invest as much as $100 million.
By contrast, the primary Democratic super PAC supporting Obama, Priorities USA Action, raised just over $14 million. Some of that money came from wealthy individuals – the largest single donor was Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, who donated $2 million. But a lot also came from labor organizations, many of which have their own political arms.
Here’s where it gets murky: While super PACs are required to disclose their donors, “issue advocacy” groups – such as Crossroads GPS, an offshoot of American Crossroads – are not, making it hard to track all the money being raised that may ultimately have a big affect on the outcome of the campaign.
And all this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Restore Our Future has a reported goal of spending $100 million, while American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have been reported as aiming to spend a combined $300 million. Priorities USA Action also has said it hopes to spend $100 million.
Estimates of just how much labor will ultimately spend on behalf of the president range from $200 to $400 million. (Of course, a whole range of other outside advocacy groups – from the Republican-leaning Chamber of Commerce to the Democratic-leaning National Abortion Rights League – will play a big role, as well.)
Question: If Romney’s benefiting mostly from big donations from wealthy contributors, is Obama still the king of small donors?
Answer: Pretty much. It’s true that the Obama campaign has been far more successful at bringing in small donations than the Romney campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 43 percent of those donating to the Obama campaign this cycle gave $200 or less, compared with just 13 percent of those giving to the Romney campaign.
Having lots of small donors has been an advantage for Obama in the past – since the campaign can always go back to those donors for additional contributions, unlike big donors who may have maxed out. But in the new super PAC-dominated campaign, there's really no such thing as maxing out, since a donor who has given the maximum to Romney and wants to keep giving has plenty of other options for supporting the Republican nominee.
That's why it may become an increasing problem for Obama if he can't get more donations from big donors, too – as the recent spate of big Hollywood fundraisers (and the leaked conference call) attest.
Question: Which industries are supporting which candidates? Has Wall Street abandoned Obama?
Answer: By far, the most heavily represented field donating to Romney is banking and finance, with Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America listed as the top three employers for the campaign’s contributors. Other top contributors come from the tax/accounting field (PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte), and hotel behemoth Marriott (founded by a fellow Mormon).
But the story is somewhat different when looking at donors to the party committees. The DNC lists Goldman Sachs as its second biggest source of contributions overall – which would appear to undercut, somewhat, the narrative that Obama has alienated the financial industry with his more populist campaign rhetoric and attacks on Bain Capital. (Not surprisingly, Bain is a top source of donations to Romney).