Money may not decide this presidential election — both sides are spending plenty — but with both campaigns swimming in cash, the rules of the game have changed. The fight to Tuesday’s finish is suddenly expanding to new states, a few of which haven’t been contested all year.
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party entered the final three weeks of the campaign with $169 million, ahead of the $125 million in the hands of President Obama and the Democratic Party. This has allowed Romney and the GOP in the waning days to bankroll TV ad forays into Pennsylvania and Minnesota, both once considered safe for Obama.
Public polls this week show the race tightening in those two states but with the president still ahead. The Obama campaign has countered with its own advertising in those states, plus Michigan, another presumed Democratic stronghold, in response to a pro-Romney super PAC late ad purchase in that state.
To hear the two campaigns spin it, Romney will either break through in the final days and run up the Electoral College score on Nov. 6, or he can’t find a path to the magic number of 270 through all-important Ohio and is desperately grasping at straws in these new, Democratic-leaning states.
On its face, the Romney gambit is a long shot in a contest that appears almost static, according to the polls.
Michigan and Pennsylvania haven’t backed a Republican for president in the last five elections, and Minnesota last went GOP in the Nixon landslide of 1972.
Wisconsin, which reached battleground status after Romney picked Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate, has not fallen into the Republican presidential column since the Reagan reelection landslide of 1984.
Romney has never led Obama in a poll this year in Minnesota and has not led Obama in Wisconsin since August, Pennsylvania since February, and Michigan since April.
But what all four of these states share is an electorate that is proportionately more white than the nation as a whole, and every poll shows Romney with a lopsided and growing advantage among white voters. And in each of those four states, the Obama lead was in double digits in at least one poll as recently as several weeks ago but has fallen to mid- to low-single digits this week.
Three pro-Romney outside groups plan to buy air time in Pennsylvania, according to one operative who has access to ad-buying data but would not be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the transactions.
Romney, however, has not visited Pennsylvania, Minnesota, or Michigan for a campaign event recently, and time is running short to make side trips away from electoral crucibles like Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.
Moreover, the Obama campaign has been much more heavily invested in get-out-the-vote ground operations in the newer swing states for months.
The Obama campaign initially tried to downplay the significance of its large purchase of TV ads in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, saying it was aimed at several counties in western Wisconsin. But the appearance of Bill Clinton, the former president and the Obama campaign’s star surrogate, at events in Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn., indicated that the incumbent’s team takes the threat seriously.
The two campaigns’ bulging war chests are a direct result of the decisions of both candidates, for the first time since the post-Watergate reforms, to decline public funding. Along with their parties, each will spend more than $1 billion on this campaign, a record that has rendered many of the old rules obsolete.
In the past, with the limited resources that came with public financing, campaigns would target advertising and other assets carefully, pulling out of states where they had fallen behind and redeploying them. Not this year. None of the swing states has come off the table, regardless of polling results.
The Obama campaign, for instance, continues to outspend Romney in North Carolina though the incumbent has not led in a single poll there in the past month. Likewise, Romney has not led Obama in a poll in Nevada since April, yet the Republicans sent an additional team of operatives to Reno for the final days of the race.
Here’s one measure of the increase in the amount of money now in play in the presidential campaign. For the week ending last Sunday, the campaigns and allied outside groups spent about $84 million on broadcast advertising alone, more than double the amount of only two weeks ago. And, it’s what Republican nominee John McCain, the last presidential nominee to take public funding, had to spend for his entire nine-week general election campaign in 2008 — advertising, transportation, salaries, and everything else.
Of the total spent on ads last week, almost half was spent by super PACs and other outside groups, nearly 80 percent of which was in support of Romney or attacking Obama.
An Obama campaign spokesman dismissed the late Romney stabs at new states.
“Their latest moves are purely out of desperation, trying to cobble together a path to 270, but there are increasingly few roads to get there,” said Michael Czin in an e-mail.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the campaign would not discuss decisions about resource deployment in the campaign’s final days. “We just aren’t going to get into this and broadcast to the Obama camp what our plans are,” she said.
On Tuesday, however, Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, issued a memo calling Pennsylvania “a unique opportunity” for the challenger. Citing recent GOP gains in state political offices, he called the Keystone State “a natural next step as we expand the playing field.”
“They’re trying to use the money as therapy,” said Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who has worked for Romney in the past.
“They’re reaching out in every direction looking for something that works in a too-close-to-call election. This is what happens with nervous people on both sides who have too much money to spend.”