As the general election for president unofficially begins, its funding will be marked by two firsts: For the first time in the post-Watergate era, neither candidate will use public funds, and the super PACs created as a result of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling will have their first chance to wield their unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and labor unions as the nation selects a president.
The vast majority of seven-figure checks is gushing into Republican coffers, making some Democrats nervous. On the plus side for the Democrats, their expenditures have been a fraction of what Republicans have shelled out during the contentious primary season.
Under the old campaign finance rules four years ago, Democrats had a rare lopsided money advantage over the GOP, as Barack Obama’s campaign obliterated all fund-raising records, taking in nearly $750 million.
Beyond the impact of the new rules, the fund-raising climate has also changed, dampened by the sluggish economy. A lot of money that bankrolled the 2008 campaign is on the sidelines or no longer available to either party.
But both sides expect the pace of fund-raising and spending to accelerate before the election seven months away.
Obama was the first presidential nominee to forgo public funding for the general election cycle, creating a huge advantage in his campaign against Republican John McCain. Neither Obama nor Romney will take the public grant this fall, giving up a projected $91.2 million in public funds for each nominee for the campaign’s final two months. Taking the public funds would have required limiting expenditures to that amount.
The Obama campaign has fallen behind its torrid 2008 fund-raising pace, and while Republican donations to presidential candidates have also dropped off from 2008 levels, the influence of super PACs, technically independent political committees, has filled much of the void on the GOP side of the ledger. As of the end of February, of the top 10 super PACs backing presidential candidates, nine were Republican and had raised a combined $116 million.
The lone Democratic super PAC in that group, Priorities USA Action, which is supporting Obama, took in $6.5 million. That’s an 18-to-1 advantage for the Republican side.
The candidates can’t control super PAC fund-raising. But that did not stop Obama, a harsh critic of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case and the super PACs it created, from doing an about-face earlier this year and urging Democratic donors to support Priorities USA Action, addressing what may be the Democrats’ chief vulnerability in this year’s political arms race. There is little evidence his appeal has paid off.
For Mitt Romney, his likely Republican opponent, the challenge is different. Despite some sluggishness in Obama’s fund-raising efforts, the president nevertheless had stockpiled nearly $85 million in cash on hand as of the start of March.
Romney’s campaign, which has had to spend heavily to quash a challenge from Rick Santorum, had $7.3 million. The Republican, an energetic fund-raiser, has started to rally segments of the party’s big donor base that have been on the sidelines or supported other candidates for the Republican nomination.
The two party national committees are approaching the general election with roughly equal war chests. The Republican National Committee, which is still digging out from past debt, has raised less than the Democratic National Committee in this cycle but as of the end of February had more cash on hand - $26.7 million to the DNC’s $21.2 million. Most of those funds will be used to help the presidential candidates.
“The big variable is the super PACs,’’ said Ed Rogers, a veteran of two Republican administrations and chairman of BGR Group, a Washington lobbying and consulting firm. “Do they have a $100 million check writer? How many $5 million check writers are there? That’s where the real liquidity comes in.’’
About one-tenth of all donations to the top 10 active super PACs came from Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife, who have given a combined $15 million to Winning Our Future, a super PAC that has allowed the candidacy of Newt Gingrich to stumble along after debilitating losses. Adelson has signaled he is willing to help Romney and has said he might spend $100 million of his billionaire’s fortune in the effort to defeat Obama.
Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC that financed the wave upon wave of negative ads that have wounded Gingrich and Santorum in state after state, had raised more than $43 million as of the end of February and banked contributions of $1 million or more from at least eight donors.
Another 20 donors wrote checks for at least $500,000. By law, individuals are limited to $5,000 in donations to individual candidates; $2,500 apiece for the nomination and general election phases. The open-ended super PAC contributions are a way to hugely multiply the impact of giving.
“This is the time when there are a lot of conference calls and people are telling donors, ‘Saddle up; it’s time,’ ’’ said Mike Murphy, a former Romney strategist. “They’re blowing the bugle now on the telephone. Obama has already bought media time, and the Democrats will try to pound Romney up to the convention. The message is there’s an immediate cash need to protect the candidate, and it’s time for all hands to be on deck.’’
“We’re obviously reaching out to donors across the nation who have been waiting for the general [election], and we’re getting good receptions,’’ said Andrea Saul, Romney campaign spokeswoman.
Democrats are struggling to adapt to the super PAC era. Early on, campaign cash was not considered to be a potential problem for Obama.
A review of data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics indicates that one weakness is a dropoff in money from Wall Street and other financial services executives, frequent targets of Obama statements and policies.
For instance, Michael Cavanagh, an executive at JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Eric Vincent, former head of Ospraie Management, were listed in 2008 by the Obama campaign as contribution bundlers who raised between $50,000 and $100,000. They have since donated to Romney.
Federal Election Commission reports show that Cavanagh gave Romney $2,500 last December, and Vincent donated $1,000 last June. Neither returned calls from the Globe.
Jack Connors, a major Boston-based Obama fund-raiser who made his fortune in advertising, said overconfidence may be hurting the president’s fund-raising.
“Some people don’t see Romney as a threat,’’ he said. “They say, ‘Look how far behind Romney is with women; the president is going to be reelected easily.’ But I think folks will come to their senses and realize we have a fight on our hands. You can’t let one party or one special interest fight with F-16s and you only have BB guns.’’
Obama campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan, who acknowledged the campaign does not intend to take public funds in the fall, declined to discuss specific fund-raising issues except to say the campaign disputes that its fund-raising is coming up short.
She said the campaign has about 1.8 million donors (Romney’s campaign just hit 300,000, and Obama had nearly 4 million four years ago) aided by a robust small-dollar donor base.
She referred a reporter to a recent campaign e-mail message from campaign manager Jim Messina that suggested the campaign recorded more contributions in the first quarter of 2012 than in any other quarter before.
Severin Beliveau, a prominent Maine lawyer, Democratic activist, and fund-raiser, said: “I think that the problems, to the extent they exist, are a reflection of the economy and not the way people feel about the president.’’
Beliveau has joined the growing ranks of Democratic funders shunning super PACs. “That Citizens United case is an abomination, an outrageous decision,’’ he said.
Former Obama fund-raiser David Geffen, the entertainment industry mogul, and Progressive Group of Insurance Companies head Peter Lewis, who donated more than $20 million to Democratic causes in 2004, are among the Democratic stalwarts who have declared they will not give to super PACs.Brian C. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.