The $100 million June haul by the Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney's campaign is the latest confirmation that the GOP, with the help of a potential billion-dollar boost from independent groups, is prepared to shatter previous presidential spending records. Yet President Obama, even if he’s now likely to be outspent, could still collect more than $1 billion with help from unions and his own outside groups.
Presidential races once measured by the hundreds of millions of dollars are now gauged by the billion. That shift has prompted hand-wringing, particularly among Obama supporters, that lackluster funding could doom the campaign. But the heavy emphasis on fundraising masks one key fact: Money means less in a presidential race than in its down-ballot cousins, at least when so much of it is sure to be spent.
Barring either side stockpiling an overwhelming cash edge, even seemingly prodigious differences -- like, say, $300 million -- are unlikely to push campaigns to victory.
“Money has a lot more impact in a race where there isn’t a lot of information out there,” said Kristen Soltis, a GOP consultant. “If I’m running against you for dogcatcher and you can outspend me 2- or 3-to-1, that’s a problem. But … it’s highly unlikely there will be many voters at the end confused about what Barack Obama believes, what Mitt Romney believes.”
The financial buffer zone is attributable in part to the law of diminishing returns; how valuable, after all, is purchasing another day of airtime when the ad has been on air for two weeks? But it’s also owed to the unique place that the presidential campaign holds in the media, whose coverage is saturating. While Senate and House candidates need paid media to reach voters, earned media dominates the White House race’s messaging.
Even if voters avoid watching TV or reading about it online, their opinions will be shaped by friends and family members who do pay attention.
“Whether it’s Conan O’Brien or your friend on Facebook or what you read on Twitter, there is so much information people pay attention to that campaigns do not have to pay for,” said John Jameson, a Democratic strategist. “It’s clear voters are going to get the message. Every swing voter is going to have more than enough information to make up their mind.”
Campaign ads, of course, can still change voters’ minds. Criticism of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital is believed to already have hurt his standing in Ohio. And spending $25 million on a single ad campaign, as the Karl Rove-led outside group Crossroads GPS announced on Friday that it planned to do, will command attention.
But because both sides will have money, the emphasis is less on total spending than how effectively the campaigns spend the money. In other words, the total number of ads is far less important than whether any of them are memorable.
The Bain attacks are one of the few examples thus far of an ad campaign that’s “moved numbers,” said Bill Burton, whose outside group, Priorities Action USA, has spent at least $10 million spearheading the critical TV ads. “I don’t think you have to spend more money on the other side, your spending just has to be effective."
The difference between running an ad 10 times or 100 hundred times is big, said Soltis. But the potency gap shrinks considerably when the decision is whether to air it 1 million or 2 million times.
“At some point, it’s much more important that your message is memorable than the simple repetition of it,” she said.
The law of diminishing returns takes particular hold as November approaches, when the debates and news events -- such as 2008’s financial collapse -- command most of the attention.
Messages also are more tightly controlled by the candidates themselves -- a problem for outside groups that can’t legally coordinate with them. That dilemma could be a particular concern to Republicans, because their better-funded outside group apparatus will likely spend more on the general election than Romney himself.
“In 2008, people remember the financial crisis, Sarah Palin; you remember Saturday Night Live, you remember the debates,” said one official with a GOP-affiliated independent group who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The fact is, it makes it very difficult for outside groups to crack into the narrative at the end of the race because so much of the messaging is by the campaigns, and we can’t coordinate with them.”
To be sure, any campaign strategist, regardless of circumstances, would rather have more money than his or her opponent. And a cash advantage could change the electoral playing field, according to Michael Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO.
“For example, one path to victory for Romney is through Ohio and one of Michigan and Pennsylvania,” Podhorzer said. “In an ordinary presidential campaign, he might have money try to attack in one of those states and Obama would have resources to fight back. But with super PACs, they can continue the campaigns in all of those states. That’s a much harder thing to defend against.”
Fighting to a draw in the cash battle also assumes that even if one side has a financial edge, it’s not gaping -- $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion, for instance. But Democrats publicly and privately fret that with the help of outside groups, Romney could open up a gap much larger than that.
“Yes, Democrats should be worried,” Burton said. "If Mitt Romney has the resources to dramatically outspend the president, it will be” damaging.