The Democratic National Committee started September with $7.1 million cash on hand and debts totaling $11.8 million. The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, had $76.6 million in the bank and $9.9 million in debt from a previous campaign cycle.
So, why, less than six weeks before the election, do the Democrats seem so pleased? Short of funds as they are, they think they have wisely invested early in grass-roots organizing.
“The priority has been winning the ground war, and right now, we feel we’re doing so,” said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the DNC. “We’re building a bigger, badder, more robust version of what we had in 2008, and it seems to be paying off.” It’s an organization five years in the making that will help mobilize voters for President Obama, as well as congressional Democrats.
Republicans have responded by trumpeting their own organizational efforts. Last week, party officials sent an e-mail to supporters saying that their national get-out-the-vote effort had made more than 23 million voter contacts with help from 65,000 volunteers, far surpassing GOP efforts of four years ago.
Moreover, the big edge in party money will allow the RNC to help defray advertising and event costs on occasions when party officials promote both Romney’s candidacy and other Republicans, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said.
“Because the RNC holds a $70 million advantage over the DNC, we are able to support Governor Romney in numerous ways while they are unable to do the same for the Obama campaign,” Spicer said.
The Obama campaign, however, entered September with about $38 million more in the bank than Romney’s campaign, giving the president more control in the ad wars since he does not have to take into account preferences of the national committee or outside groups, which are supposed to operate independently.
The general election is entering the endgame phase when money still matters but spending it wisely matters more, as expensive television ads reach the saturation point and presidential ads compete with those in several expensive Senate races, House races, and, in some states, governors’ contests.
“We’re at the point of diminishing returns in terms of paid media,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Virginia. Sabato, who lives in a battleground state with a red-hot Senate race, said he turns on the mute button on his television remote so that he won’t hear the wall-to-wall attack ads. “It would ruin anybody’s dinner,” Sabato said.
“At some point, it becomes a matter of bombing the rubble,” said Steve Murphy, a veteran Democratic strategist.
As the campaigns enter the stretch drive with Obama leading in the polls, the cash positions of the campaigns and parties highlight the contrasting approaches, which could be a factor.
In May, when it was apparent Obama would not be able to eclipse the marks of his record-obliterating fund-raising pace of 2008, his campaign officials informed Democratic congressional leaders that the DNC and Obama campaign would not be providing direct financial help to the Senate and House campaign committees, as they had in 2008 and 2010. It also meant that the president would not be making as many appearances at big-ticket events that fill the party’s campaign coffers.
Partly as a consequence, DNC fund-raising has dropped off. In August, the party received only $4.7 million in contributions. The RNC collected $35.6 million in August.
The Obama campaign maintains an important advantage entering the stretch drive — it started September with about $88.8 million in the bank and $2.9 million in outstanding debt compared with $50.4 million for Romney, whose campaign carried $15 million in debt.
Candidates have complete control of their advertising message and receive preferential lower rates compared with parties and outside groups like super PACs, an area of campaign spending dominated in this cycle by conservative and GOP groups. Deep into a campaign, the “lowest unit charge,” as the Federal Communications Commission calls the rate paid by candidates, can be a quarter of the commercial rate paid by super PACs.
As of Aug. 31, Romney and the Republicans had about $168.5 million in various accounts compared with $125.1 million for Obama and the Democrats. These include the national parties, joint fund-raising committees, and special funds that can be steered to crucial states at the end of the campaign. The parties’ national campaign committees to support US Senate and House candidates had roughly equal amounts in the bank entering September.
In an attempt to keep pace, Romney has spent an inordinate amount of time on the trail attending big-dollar fund-raising events, which carry significant costs and primarily benefit the party. Over a recent seven-week period, he was featured at more than 50 fund-raisers — more than one a day. Obama, meanwhile, headlined 10 fund-raising events in the same period. The incumbent’s campaign continues to rely on a base of more than 3 million small-dollar donors, nearly all of whom give over the Internet at almost no cost to the campaign.
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@