President Obama did not raise as much money from supporters last month as he did during January 2008 in his first campaign for the White House, a Globe analysis of campaign finance reports shows, suggesting a lower level of enthusiasm for the president in traditional Democratic quarters.
Contributions to Obama and the Democratic National Committee combined were down 30 percent last month compared with January four years ago. Together they raised $29.1 million in January. That is down from $41.7 million in January 2008.
Soon after last month’s fund-raising results were in, the president changed positions and encouraged contributions to his so-called super PAC, a fund-raising tool he previously shunned. The campaign did not answer directly when asked whether the sluggish fund-raising may have prompted Obama’s call for contributions to Priorities USA Action, which can accept unlimited contributions from individual supporters or corporations. Without that encouragement, the super PAC raised just $59,000 in January.
Obama’s and Democrats’ drop in contributions compared with 2008 in part reflects dramatically different circumstances: Back then, Obama was locked in a furious battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party nomination.
The Obama campaign, in an e-mailed statement to the Globe, sought to tamp down the impression that it is not generating as much excitement among financial backers. It cited a preponderance of grass-roots support in its campaign reports as evidence. According to the campaign, the average donation to the Obama campaign in January was $57, and 98 percent of all donors during the campaign have given $250 or less.
“Big fund-raising months are often driven by big events in the race, like primary contests, and that was primary money in the midst of the hottest month of the primary campaign,’’ the campaign said, referring to the 2008 contest. “We’re not in the midst of a competitive primary and are putting this general election money away in the bank while investing some of it in organization on the ground the GOP doesn’t dream of matching.’’
The rate at which the Obama campaign is spending campaign funds - called its burn rate - is not as high as the field of GOP primary contenders battling for the nomination in Michigan and Arizona. But the Obama campaign is using up cash at a far greater rate than the last incumbent to seek reelection, George W. Bush in 2004, a Globe analysis of campaign finance reports shows. Moreover, the Bush campaign in 2004 set fund-raising records, even though Bush’s renomination was uncontested.
The Obama campaign in recent months has been downplaying fund-raising expectations fanned by Republicans who have warned their base that the president is seeking to spend $1 billion in an effort to win a second term. In late December, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called those estimates wrong, and there were reports that the target is closer to that of the 2008 campaign, when Obama raised about $750 million.
Earlier this month, Obama did a U-turn and announced he is encouraging large donors to support Priorities USA Action, a super PAC formed by former aides to help his reelection campaign. Previously he had criticized the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the doors to super PACs, which must spend independently of candidates and parties but may take in unlimited contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations, and labor unions. At that time, he called the development “a threat to democracy.’’
In an interview last week with a Charlotte television station, Obama sought to justify the turnaround, saying: “The challenge is we’ve got some of these super PACs that have pledged to spend up to half a billion dollars to try to buy this election and what I’ve said consistently is we’re not going to just unilaterally disarm.’’
Republicans pounced, however, on Obama’s weaker fund-raising numbers, saying they reflect a lack of support for his campaign.
“It’s pretty clear that across the range from small to large, there have been a lot of people who bought in [to Obama] last time that aren’t buying in four years later,’’ said Sean Spicer, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. The campaign’s emphasis on collections from small-time contributors, he said, is an attempt “to not focus on the fact that all those folks that gave big to them last time are not coming back.’’
Simple mathematics, meanwhile, demonstrates why the Obama team has shifted to a super PAC strategy of gathering unlimited, million-dollar contributions - even while trumpeting its $57 average contributions to the main Obama account.
To offset a $10 million donation, like the combined contributions last month by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife to a super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, a candidate would have to coax 2,000 individuals to donate the $5,000 maximum that can be given directly to a campaign. At the Obama average of $57 a pop, it would require 175,439 contributions to neutralize largess of the Adelsons’ magnitude.
Republican super PACs, mostly aligned with individual candidates, far outraised their Democratic rivals during 2011. Obama’s Priorities USA Action raised $4.4 million last year, about one-seventh of the $30.2 million taken in by Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing Republican candidate Mitt Romney. GOP-backing American Crossroads, a super PAC, and its affiliated Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a nonprofit “social welfare’’ advocacy group that does not have to disclose its donors, reported raising a combined $51 million in 2011.
The ratio of fund-raising between the Obama campaign committee and the DNC also indicates changing dynamics for the incumbent. In January 2008, the Obama campaign reaped $36 million and the DNC collected $5.7 million. Four years later, the DNC performed better than the Obama team. The Obama campaign took in just $11.9 million in January, while the DNC gathered up $17.2 million.
The Obama campaign spent $17.2 million last month, leaving $76 million cash on hand. Eight years ago, Bush raised $12.9 million in January, spent $7.6 million, and had $104.4 million in the bank heading into February.
To keep pace with fund-raising in the first quarter of 2008, the Obama campaign and the DNC will have to raise at least $108 million by the end of March.
The Obama campaign says part of its spending involves investing more in upfront costs to help on-the-ground campaigning in individual states. In 2011, the campaign reported spending about $18.7 million on phones, computers, and related in-kind costs that were directed to state parties and operations. But the campaign also had a payroll of nearly 360 employees in the last quarter of 2011, about 200 more than Bush-Cheney during a comparable period eight years earlier, a Globe review shows.
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.