He may have already shattered presidential fundraising records, but a question lingers over President Barack Obama’s budding 2012 re-election bid: Is there such a thing as too much money?
A growing consensus has emerged that the Democratic president, who outraised Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) $779 million to $400 million in 2008, could become the nation’s first politician to raise $1 billion in one cycle. But Republicans on the campaign trail and elsewhere are already working to ensure his road to 10 figures is marked with potential pitfalls.
“The fact that the Democrats are bragging about wanting to spend $1 billion is causing our own donors to get excited and send us checks,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Roll Call in an interview. “Spending a lot of money and winning don’t always go hand in hand. ... It’s possible that it could backfire.”
But a fat bank account is rarely a bad thing in politics. And most Democrats laugh off the suggestion that hitting the billion-dollar mark could be a political liability. At the very least, Obama’s fundraising prowess could become a distraction as the campaign progresses. At worst, Republicans say it could alienate voters already struggling with foreclosures and joblessness as the nation slowly emerges from an extended economic downturn.
“You have that number out there. That’s a huge fundraising push for us — to say this is what we’re up against,” Republican fundraising consultant Carolyn Machado said. “In this economy, people will look at that and some will say, ‘Gosh we’ve got unemployment at this level, and he’s raising $1 billion?’”
The sheer magnitude of the numbers may be difficult to comprehend.
For perspective, Obama raised $779 million in the 2008 cycle from almost 4 million donors. That’s more than the combined totals of both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 cycle. And should he crack the $1 billion mark, Obama in one cycle will have raised roughly as much as the top Democratic and Republican candidates from the 2000 and 2004 cycles combined, according to an analysis by CQ MoneyLine.
“In one way it’s an arbitrary mark, but it’s certainly an eye-opening mark,” said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “Could he reach $1 billion? Absolutely. Will he reach a billion? It’s very early yet, so it’s impossible to say. But you’ve got to think that’s an absolutely achievable goal.”
Obama shattered the previous record ­of $375 million, set by Bush in 2004, largely by drawing on smaller donations from individual donors. That’s a distinction that matters, according to Levinthal.
“Not every sum of money is always equal,” he said. “There are different ways to raise $100, $1 million or even $1 billion. But of course, if you’re raising $1 billion, you’re obviously getting significant backing from folks with money. ... The question is to what extent does he balance that with small-donor donations?”
According to a Democratic operative familiar with the president’s pending re-election campaign, Obama’s 2012 strategy will look a lot like his 2008 one — with a continued push for small donors. The Democratic National Committee’s Organizing for America has tried to keep those people who gave as little as $10 engaged over the past two years.
“Obama will have the resources necessary to win, and for proof all you have to do is look to history,” the operative said, noting that the DNC raised record sums in the 2010 cycle despite the ailing economy and dismal year for Democrats.
“That speaks to the strength of the team and structure that Obama has at his disposal,” the operative said.
Republican consultants in some ways admire Obama’s fundraising accomplishments.
“I think that he can,” Machado said when asked if Obama could hit the billion-dollar mark. “He was so aggressive in Internet fundraising, capturing those audiences every time he spoke. During those rallies, every e-mail was captured. Those people received a solicitation hours after the rally.”
Obama’s inevitable bigger-dollar donor haul — his team is already cultivating them and locking down those top supporters for a repeat of the first campaign — and a record-setting pace could undermine one Democratic strategy.
Throughout the final months of the 2010 midterm campaigns, Democrats across the country railed against the influence of conservative outside groups that dumped millions of dollars into federal races, usually without having to disclose their donors.
Obama at fundraisers last fall derided Republicans he said were “being driven by the special interests who have been paying for their campaigns over the course of the last several months.” The argument resembled his 2008 campaign, when he refused to take donations from federally registered lobbyists and called out rivals for taking lobbyist cash.
But voters have not demonstrated that they care much about the campaign finance process. Republicans tried to make an issue in 2008 out of Obama’s flip-flop on a promise to take public financing should he become the nominee, to no avail.
Money will certainly be an initial challenge on the Republican side, where the crowded primary field will be forced to compete for cash from the same pool of donors.
Should he run, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is known to have strong national fundraising connections from his tenures leading the RNC and the Republican Governors Association. But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the most accomplished among the likely contenders and is wealthy.
He raised almost $114 million in the 2008 cycle, according to numbers compiled by CQ MoneyLine. That’s more than President George H.W. Bush raised in 1992.
“He’s got proven capacity,” Levinthal said of Romney. “Nine figures is nothing to thumb your nose at. And he was out of the race relatively early.”
By comparison, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses, raised just $16 million in the 2008 cycle.
But Priebus said he’ll make sure the Republican nominee has the money needed, and the donations would likely flood in once the candidate is certain to be on the ballot.
American Crossroads and its sister organization, Crossroads GPS, were among the biggest outside spenders, devoting $70 million to the midterms. They have since outlined plans to raise and spend $120 million on the 2012 cycle.
Of course, that’s a fraction of what the Obama campaign is likely to spend. And a Crossroads spokesman added that the president will be getting significant outside help from organized labor.
“The unions spent more than $450 million in the 2008 elections — and with their backs to the wall now, we expect their efforts to increase dramatically,” said American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. “So we’re entering a scenario where Obama, the unions and the left-wing, activist, MoveOn types will likely dump nearly $2 billion into the 2012 elections and dramatically outspend the right.”
Indeed, backed by his fundraising machine, it’s likely that the president will have an edge. But despite the Republican criticism, that’s not a bad thing, says Democratic consultant Mark Nevins.
“The Republicans just sound jealous,” he said. “In every campaign, you need money to run and win. It’s that simple. It doesn’t guarantee anything — obviously, political history is littered with self-funding millionaires who lost. But to have the resources to run the kind of campaign that you want to run gives you an incredible advantage. And anybody who says otherwise is either spinning or politically inept.”
Perhaps to prove Nevins’ point, a New Hampshire-based GOP operative recently admitted to Roll Call that Obama presents a daunting challenge: “Let’s face it, the chances of Obama being defeated anyway are slim. I’m just being a realist. The guy’s going to raise $1 billion.”
Alex Knott contributed to this report.