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Rules of the Game: For Left, Win Lies in ‘People Power’

Saul Loeb/AFP/Pool
President Barack Obama pulled in more than $130 million for his campaign in 2011 and an additional $44 million through a joint fundraising committee for the DNC.

But Obama’s numbers look less rosy when stacked up against the $30 million collected by pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. The seven-figure donations flowing to GOP super PACs from billionaires, hedge fund managers, and executives in the energy, real estate and financial services industries signal that big Republican contributors will give unprecedented sums in 2012.

While Democratic Party committees have outraised their GOP counterparts so far, they have less cash on hand. And once Republicans choose a nominee, big donors and super PACs now backing GOP hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are likely to fall in line behind Obama’s opponent.

Democratic organizers acknowledge that the GOP money edge is forcing them to be more efficient and well-coordinated than ever. The top Democratic super PACs confer by phone virtually every day. They are Priorities USA Action, which backs Obama; Majority PAC, which supports Senate Democrats; House Majority PAC, and American Bridge 21st Century, which focuses largely on opposition research and video messaging.

Organizers for those groups also work closely with EMILY’s List, the PAC backing female Democrats, the League of Conservation Voters and America Votes, an umbrella coalition representing more than two dozen labor, environmental and progressive groups. Democratic super PACs are also leaning heavily on labor groups such as the SEIU and the AFL-CIO for funding.

“We’re absolutely doubling up on efforts,” one Democratic super PAC organizer said. “We have to be as lean as possible to maximize our resources as a group.”

It’s a ground war and get-out-the-vote campaign similar to the Democratic 527s assembled in 2004 in an unsuccessful bid to get the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), into the White House. The big difference then was that big Democratic donors such as financier George Soros, entertainment mogul Stephen Bing and insurance industry executive Peter Lewis invested tens of millions of dollars into the effort.

This year, Soros, Bing and Lewis are all missing from the Priorities USA Action donor list, though they have collectively given several hundred thousand dollars to the other three leading Democratic super PACs. Progressive donors may still step forward, especially now that FEC disclosures show how badly Democrats are outgunned. Democrats are stressing their grass-roots, not their monetary, advantage.

“Let’s be candid: We’re never going to outspend the Koch brothers and Karl Rove,” said Navin Nayak, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “That’s just the reality. Corporations have always been able to outspend public interest groups. The difference is we have a much more compelling story and the public agrees with us.”

Updated: Feb. 7, 2012

This story has been updated to reflect the Obama campaign's late-night announcement that the president would be backing and directing senior Democrats to raise money for the super PAC backing him.

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