Mitt Romney’s commanding victory on Tuesday in the New Hampshire Republican primary was an unmistakable testament to the former governor’s political strength. But it’s what he did a day later that that likely turned heads at President Obama’s campaign headquarters in Chicago.
The president’s likely general-election opponent reported on Wednesday that he raised $24 million in the last three months of 2011, an impressive haul particularly because it was collected in the heat of a GOP primary contest that demanded days of retail politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire. Since he kicked off his campaign in June, Romney has raised a total of $56 million, and back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire will only make raising cash that much easier.
The Obama campaign on Thursday reported fourth-quarter numbers that made clear the size of the challenge for whoever is the Republican nominee. Obama For America raised more than $42 million; the Democratic National Committee raised more than $24 million, and a joint effort focused on swing states raised more than $1 million, for a total of $68 million.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has long had the profile and political savvy to be a formidable general-election challenger. Wednesday’s financial report proves he also has the fundraising chops necessary to take on Obama. With the help of well-heeled conservative outside groups like Americans Crossroads, he could even nullify Obama’s presumed financial edge in the fall, despite the president’s own lofty fundraising goals.
“You won’t match [Obama] dollar-for-dollar, but these fundraising reports now are indicative we will be able to fight a very competitive campaign in the battleground states,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “The Republican nominee, which looks like it will be Romney, will be able to compete very effectively against the Obama campaign.”
To put Romney’s numbers in perspective, most of his GOP foes—with the exception of Texas Gov. Rick Perry—will probably report raising less money total to date than the $19 million Romney had on hand to start the year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, raised less than $3 million through September, and even a December surge in the polls brought in only an additional $10 million, according to the candidate.
Perry raised eyebrows by reporting a $17 million fundraising boomlet after entering the race, but his badly slumping effort is unlikely to come close to matching the $24 million Romney raised in the final quarter of the year. Other candidates, like former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and onetime U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, will also likely lag far behind.
“I think it’s becoming very obvious to Republican primary voters and to the Republican financial community that he’s going to be the eventual nominee,” Bonjean said. “So you see the spigot now turning on.”
Even as he soars past his GOP rivals, Romney’s war chest is still far smaller than Obama’s. The president, who could become the first candidate to surpass $1 billion in fundraising, already raised more than $150 million through the Democratic National Committee through September. The total could exceed $200 million when they release a year-end report at the end of this month.
On its face, Obama’s current financial edge makes it doubtful Romney can ever be able to catch up. But that assessment ignores the complete fundraising picture in the 2012 election, the first since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 opened the floodgates of corporate giving to outside political groups. As a result of the ruling, outside groups, the so-called super PACs, can take uncapped contributions and are becoming just as significant as the official candidate accounts. And every early metric indicates the GOP nominee will be able to count on conservative-allied outside groups having a significant cash advantage over their Democratic counterparts.
One such super PAC, Restore Our Future, which is aligned with Romney and run by several of his former aides, has already made a $6 million ad buy in South Carolina and Florida. That’s on top of the $7 million it had already spent airing television ads on Romney’s behalf.
More significant, though, are outside groups like the American Crossroads, which is backed by Karl Rove, the former top political adviser to President George W. Bush. It has set a fundraising goal of at least $240 million with the goal of using some of that money to assist the eventual Republican nominee. Its support could be especially helpful in the coming months, when presumably Romney locks up the nomination but isn’t quite ready to take on the already-up-and-running Obama reelection campaign. Other super PACs, like Americans for Prosperity, financed by the wealthy industrialist Koch brothers of Wichita, Kan., have made similar promises to try to defeat Obama. Democratic outside groups, like the Obama-aligned Priorities USA Action, have yet to prove as potent.
Romney will see his fundraising continue to climb if and when he emerges as the nominee, when the party rallies behind him. He also could dip into his own personal fortune, which he drew on heavily during his 2008 presidential run.
The combined efforts of Romney and the Republican groups might not be enough to match Obama, but they are poised to come close. In a presidential election saturated by media, where it takes spending in the hundreds of millions of dollars to make a difference, that might be enough.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Americans for Prosperity group; it is a 501(c) organization.