In the face of a blistering series of negative ads in key states by President Obama’s campaign, challenger Mitt Romney’s cash-strapped campaign has been boosted by heavy advertisement purchases of attack ads by conservative groups. It more than offsets the Obama spending edge.
From May 1 through this week, the Obama campaign had spent about $86 million on ads compared to $32.3 million for the Romney campaign, according to data compiled for one of the groups involved in the ad battle. Among outside groups, however, those allied with Romney had outspent those backing Obama by about $80 million to $13 million, the report shows, tilting the overall spending edge to the Republican side.
A Democrat with knowledge of national ad buys said that when future ad time that has already been purchased is factored into the totals since May 1, it shows Romney and the Republican groups have about a $45 million advantage, or 37 percent more than Obama and the Democrats.
This is the new reality of campaign finance, in which outside groups, which can raise unlimited sums from individuals, corporations, and labor unions, have emerged as major purveyors of attack ads.
The campaigns and parties, which have limits on how much they may accept from individuals, are playing a lesser role than in the past. The Globe reported earlier this month that Republican-friendly outside groups were outraising their Democratic counterparts by better than 3 to 1 in this election cycle.
It’s an important phase of the campaign because Obama and his Democratic allies are trying to tarnish Romney with attacks on his record as head of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that made him wealthy, and his insistence on producing only his two most recent years of tax returns. They come at a time when the Romney campaign has cash-flow problems because in winning a prolonged battle for the GOP nomination, it expended most of the money available before he receives the party’s formal nomination at the end of next month in Tampa. Under the law, individuals may contribute up to $2,500 to be spent before the nomination and another $2,500 for use in the general election campaign.
Independent polling has shown little movement in the tight contest despite the extraordinary amount of early spending targeted on 10 or fewer states.
“The game is completely different,” said Mark McKinnon, media consultant to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “Outside interests will likely spend more money than both the campaigns combined . . . Romney has [them] to cover him during the period when he is being heavily outspent.”
That makes it unlikely, McKinnon said, that Romney will suffer the same fate as Bob Dole, who, in 1996, had exhausted his pre-convention funds to beat back a large field of challengers and was hammered for months by the campaign of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, who was basically unopposed for renomination.
“Unlike Bob Dole in 1996 who got crushed by early money that Clinton spent, Romney has Crossroads and others to cover him,” McKinnon said. Crossroads refers to American Crossroads, a super PAC that this week began a $9.3 million ad campaign in nine states defending Romney against the Obama attacks, and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, its allied nonprofit, which has spent more than $30 million on ads attacking Obama’s handling of the economy in the past 10 weeks. The super PAC donors may give unlimited amounts but must be disclosed; the non-profit set up to promote “social welfare” does not have to disclose individual contributors.
Romney’s other major allies in the air wars include Americans for Prosperity, a “social welfare” organization cofounded and partially funded by the billionaire businessmen Koch brothers, David and Charles, which has spent about $13.9 million on ads slamming the incumbent president in the past 10 weeks; and Restore Our Future, the super PAC behind Romney, which had spent around $10.2 million on ads attacking Obama in the same period; and three other conservative groups that spent a combined $6.4 million.
The president’s chief ally in the ad fight and spending about $10.3 million in negative ads aimed at Romney during this period has been Priorities USA Action, a super PAC set up to help Obama. A combination of labor, abortion rights, and environmental organizations spent a combined $2.7 million criticizing Romney.
The Republican National Committee joined the game this week, purchasing more than $9 million worth of ads.
“It’s a totally different environment now in terms of the amount of money and the impact it has on the electorate,” said Scott Reed, who managed the Dole campaign. “We had burned through our money to win the nomination, and in ’96, there weren’t any super PACs, which today are almost going point for point [a measure of television viewership for ads] with everybody.”
Reed said there is so much clutter on the air in the battleground states now “that it’s going to be a challenge to break through. The traditional slime won’t work.”
Patrick R. Miller has a good vantage point as professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati where Ohio voters are facing an unending string of mostly negative ads more than three months before the election.
“This is a lot of messaging and a lot of hot air being blown, and the campaigns aren’t going to see a whole lot of payoff here,” said Miller, who specializes in campaign communication and voter decision making. “Most of these truly undecided voters at this point absorb the messages passively, and if there’s a message out there that will swing that undecided electorate, it’s hard to tell now.”