With the president’s re-election fundraising drive thus far coming up short of his record-breaking 2008 pace, Team Obama — with the president and first lady Michelle Obama in the lead — is pushing hard to pump up the money figures ahead of Saturday’s financial-reporting deadline.
By some measures, Mr. Obama’s re-election drive, which at one point was projected as perhaps the first $1 billion campaign in U.S. history, has collected tens of millions of dollars less than President Bush’s campaign had at the same point in 2004, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) figures.
Democrats say the numbers are not exact apples-to-apples comparisons, with total numbers complicated by the rise of independent super PACs and funds raised for the party organizations.
But the less-than-imposing numbers have prompted a flurry of fundraising emails to supporters to donate ahead of the March 31 first-quarter deadline, including separate appeals from Mr. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama just in the days since the president returned from an international summit in South Korea on Wednesday.
Mrs. Obama’s pitch, titled “Up Late,” extolled her husband’s work ethic and said she needs supporters “to have his back” this week and donate.
Through the end of February, the campaign had raised a total of $118.79 million, for a total of $157 million when combined with the $38.25 million left over from the 2008 race.
At the comparable point in 2004, Mr. Bush had raised $158.25 million for his re-election effort, with barely more than $1 million of that coming from his previous campaign, according to the FEC.
At times, Mr. Obama’s top aides have openly fretted about the level of resistance they are encountering from some Democratic donors, especially in the face of the challenge posed by the pro-GOP super PACs. The president’s fundraising team has tried to highlight in stark terms what it sees as the consequences of Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney winning the White House.
“We cannot underestimate someone like Romney, who has shown he will spend and say anything to win,” campaign manager Jim Messina warned in an email to supporters last week. The pitch included a poll showing Mr. Obama losing to Mr. Romney if the election were held now.
Earlier this month, Mr. Messina took a swipe at Mr. Obama’s supporters in an email blast at 3 a.m.
“Too many Obama supporters are falling into a trap,” he wrote. “They’re waiting to donate until we have a clear opponent. There’s too much at stake, and not enough time, to be doing that.”
The expectations game
While pushing for more donations, Mr. Obama’s aides are pushing back at suggestions that the campaign is strapped for cash or falling well short of expectations.
Democratic officials argue that comparing the figures for Mr. Bush eight years ago and Mr. Obama today isn’t fair because the president has been furiously raising money for the Democratic National Committee this year and last as well.
So far this cycle, the DNC has raised $157.68 million and has $37.17 million in cash on hand and $5.9 million in outstanding debts, while the Republican National Committee has collected $127.66 million and has $42 million in cash on hand and $10.9 million in debts, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
It’s difficult to get a clear one-to-one comparison. Mr. Bush also raised money for the RNC in 2003 and 2004. At this same point in the campaign, the GOP party committee in 2004 had collected $55.87 million in receipts and had $45.53 million in cash on hand, with the bulk of the nearly $400 million it eventually raised coming in the second and third quarters of 2004.
An Obama campaign spokesman told The Washington Times that the president’s re-election effort had reached 1 million donors six months faster than it had in 2008.
“The 1.5 million supporters who have already donated to this campaign know what is at stake, and they know that President Obama has to continue the fight for middle-class security in this country,” the spokesman said.
Down ‘by any account’
But Republicans are all too eager to point out the angst-filled emails as proof that something is amiss.
“No matter how you look it, the numbers don’t lie,” said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The support for the president’s election is down by any account, and I think they are having trouble getting the coalition that propelled them to victory in 2008 back together based on the policies of the last four years.”
Potentially more worrisome for Team Obama, however, is how fast money is flying out the campaign door, the so-called “burn rate.”
Unlike the super PACs that have been filling the airwaves in GOP primary states, Mr. Obama’s campaign isn’t spending most of its money on TV and radio ads to reach actual voters. The bulk of its outlays have been for political consultants and his large campaign staff as well as telemarketing, direct-mail costs and online advertising, which usually includes a fundraising pitch. In 2011 and so far in 2012, the campaign has spent a combined $12.25 million on online advertising alone.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal this month, Karl Rove, a GOP strategist who was a senior adviser to Mr. Bush, said these fixed costs are particularly troublesome because they can’t be stopped on a dime like other campaign costs, such as a television ad buy or adjusting the size of phone banks.
“These are tougher [expenses] to unwind or delay,” Mr. Rove wrote. “Left unaltered, they generally lead to even more frantic efforts to both raise money and stop other spending.”
Mr. Rove also pointed to reports that the White House in early March told congressional Democrats not to expect any money for their campaigns from the Democratic National Committee and Obama for America this year. That money, they said, would be devoted exclusively to the president’s re-election.
Even so, Mr. Obama’s fundraising has far outpaced any of his likely Republican rivals, including Mr. Romney. But Democrats remain deeply concerned about the pro-GOP super PACs, the power of the ads they fund, and the Democrats’ inability so far to compete with them through independent groups of their own.
After blasting their formation and calling them a “threat to democracy,” Mr. Obama’s campaign has embraced them, recently announcing that many of his aides, as well as current and former members of his Cabinet, would appear at fundraisers for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting him.
But Priorities USA Action has struggled to compete with its GOP counterparts. It reported raising just $2 million in February, half of which came from comedian Bill Maher, bringing its total raised for the election so far to nearly $6.5 million. That pales in comparison with Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Mr. Romney, which has spent $37.9 million against other Republicans so far in the GOP primary alone.
So far, all super PACs have raised a total of $153.82 million and spent $81.7 million — mainly to tear down other Republicans. Team Obama is bracing for an onslaught of negative ads from those same super PACs once the primary is over and the president becomes the main target in the general election.
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