Is Mitt Romney really ahead in the money race?

Mitt Romney has raised more millions in May and June than has Obama. But Obama, who did not have to spend big to win the nomination, has a lot more cash on hand for the fight ahead.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File, Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Has Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised more campaign money than President Barack Obama?

Mitt Romney has raised more campaign money than President Obama for two months in a row. In May, Mr. Romney and the Republican National Committee brought in $17 million more than did Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee. In June, that gap widened to $35 million, as Romney and the RNC raked in a total of $106 million, while Obama took in $71 million.

For the Romney campaign, this is great news. It appears that Wall Street donors are flocking back to the Republican banner, after a 2008 election cycle in which many financiers supported Obama. The presumptive GOP nominee and his allies appear well on their way toward their goal of an $800 million campaign war chest – a cash cushion that might enable them to outspend their opponents in the 2012 struggle for the White House.

But the overall money picture is a bit more complicated than the headline “Romney Outdoes Obama in Fundraising” indicates.

For one, the campaigns did not start their general election money race from the same point. Romney has had to fight his way through a tough primary season, with all the spending that entails. Obama has been able to save up, waiting for his election moment.

Just look at the data from the invaluable OpenSecrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics to see what we mean.

At the end of May – the latest date for which all details are in – the Obama campaign by itself had about $109.6 million in cash on hand. The Romney campaign had much less money at its disposal: about $17 million, according to CRP.

This edge has enabled Obama to buy large blocks of airtime early in swing states such as Ohio, hammering Romney on his Bain Capital years, and so forth. Obama’s cash-on-hand lead may quickly dissipate, as Romney raises money and Obama spends. There’s some question whether early ad spending will make much difference in November. But at this point Obama leads in the spending race, and in the end it is spending, not fundraising per se, that may make a difference at the polls.

Plus, Romney’s campaign through the end of May was less efficient in its cash accumulation than was its Democratic counterpart.

Through May, about 25 percent of Romney’s expenditures went to fundraising expenses. The corresponding figure for Obama? Five percent.

The disparity here isn’t quite as big as it seems – Obama’s percentage is lower partly due to the fact that his total amount of expenditures has been greater. But again, the most important thing in politics is not how much money you get, but how much you have to spend on ads, get-out-the-vote organizations, and so forth. Cash laid out to set up dinners for high rollers is cash you don’t have available to spend in Ohio on attack ads.

None of this means Romney won’t end up on top in the overall money wars. What it does mean is that the situation may not be as simple as the press releases of both sides suggest. Romney trumpets his fundraising successes as evidence of his electoral appeal. Team Obama talks about Romney’s cash as a means to try to motivate Democratic donors.

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