In Obamaland, the 3 a.m. phone call has become the 3 a.m. e-mail.
In their own way, both speak to a crisis mentality and a groping for security. The contexts couldn’t be more different, but the anxiety—real and imagined—is no less genuine.
To review, the 3 a.m. phone call was in a TV ad Hillary Rodham Clinton ran against Obama in the heat of the Texas and Ohio primaries in 2008. It asked voters to ponder the fate of America if Barack Obama were president and a national crisis struck in the middle of the night.
Now, the 3 a.m. e-mail is one sent by campaign manager Jim Messina to Obama supporters the morning after Super Tuesday. Messina sent the e-mail at 3:14 a.m. EST, less than an hour after Super Tuesday officially ended with Mitt Romney winning the Alaska caucuses. Messina was begging for money, imploring potential donors to pony up and not be lulled into a false state of euphoria by the protracted GOP brawl for the nomination.
“Too many Obama supporters are waiting until there’s a clear Republican nominee to make their first donation,” Messina wrote. “That kind of thinking loses elections.”
When asked about the middle-of-the-night missive, Messina sheepishly replied: “I’m not a big sleeper.”
In fact, Obama’s reelection campaign has a split personality when it comes to the general election. One side is confident and growing more so about the turbulent GOP primary, an improving U.S. economy, and better numbers for Obama in swing states. The other side harbors fears bordering on paranoia about massive spending by the GOP and outside super PACs for the party’s nominee.
“There is already unprecedented super-PAC spending going on,” Messina said. “There will be super-PAC spending in key states against us. We have to be prepared for that.”
To prepare for it, Obama’s campaign has put the rest of the Democratic Party on a starvation diet. Messina and senior White House adviser David Plouffe (Obama’s 2008 campaign manager) have told top Democrats that they won’t receive any cash transfers from Obama’s campaign or the Democratic National Committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sought commitments for $30 million, the amount distributed to them in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Not this time.
Messina said that the campaign fears outside groups will devote upward of $500 million to anti-Obama super-PAC TV ads as soon as the GOP nominee (likely to be Romney) is decided. By comparison, GOP nominee John McCain spent $333 million on his campaign, and outside groups spent $26 million supporting him. Obama spent $730 million in that campaign, and outside groups spent $88 million attacking him.
“We are in a whole new world here,” senior campaign adviser David Axelrod said. “The president has taken on some very powerful interests and the Citizens United ruling allows those interest groups to siphon off unlimited amounts of money. We would be insane not to be worried about that. We believe we have the strongest candidate, but money does matter.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case made it easier for individuals, corporations, and labor unions to donate unlimited amounts of money to independent political action committees, now known as super PACs. Super PACs supporting Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have kept those campaigns afloat, even though federal law prohibits any direct coordination.
Reid and Pelosi, according to Democrats aware of the sit-down with Plouffe and Messina, took their medicine without complaint. Democrats close to the situation said that the leaders emerged feeling that Team Obama was in full-blown panic mode about the need for campaign cash this fall. “They are just freaked out about super-PAC spending,” said one of Pelosi’s top allies.
“It’s always an ongoing conversation,” said Democratic strategist John Lapp, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Lapp worked under then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., when he chaired the DCCC. “I remember Rahm pounding on the table, demanding funds from the DNC. This happens every season. There’s always push and pull. Reid and Pelosi see this as the beginning of the conversation. I’ll be very surprised if at the end of this cycle … they’re not receiving help.”
Lapp said that Obama’s team is right to be worried about super-PAC spending and laments that wealthy liberals don’t pony up the way wealthy Republicans do. “This is a wake-up call to progressives of means,” Lapp said. “Don’t let us be outshouted. Republicans have an undying array of undead billionaires. We just don’t have as many.”
But Steven Law, president of American Crossroads—one of the biggest pro-GOP super PACs in Washington—said that Team Obama’s concerns are overwrought and misplaced. Law said that Obama’s real concern ought to be how much money he has raised and how fast it’s spent. So far, Obama’s campaign has raised $137 million, spent $63 million, and reports $76 million cash-on-hand. Obama has conducted 100 fundraisers already this cycle. At the same stage of the race in 2004, then-President Bush had held only 56 fundraisers but had more than $100 million cash-on-hand, said Law, who admitted to “monitoring pretty closely” Obama’s campaign finances.
“They are spending at a very fast clip and have a high burn rate,” Law said. “They have a very expensive machine to build and feed.”
Law said that his group, which spent $71 million in 2010, intends to raise $120 million this election. Law said that a third of his budget will go to winning House and Senate seats for Republicans and predicted that upward of half the pro-GOP super-PAC spending will focus on congressional races, not Obama. Other pro-GOP super PACs will equal or exceed Crossroads. “Could there be $400 million to $500 million? Perhaps it could reach that scale,” Law said.
Such is the stuff that nightmares—and 3:14 a.m. fundraising e-mails—are made of.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.