Jul 4, 2008

Can Obama Buy The Presidency?

Karl Rove has a look at this question in today's Wall Street Journal

On the money front, how do Sens. Obama and McCain stack up? No contest, it seems. Since the campaign began, Mr. Obama has raised a staggering $295-plus million, versus Mr. McCain's almost $122 million. But that's misleading.
Mr. Obama spent a lot to win the nomination. So how much cash did he and his rival have when the general election effectively began in June? As of May 31, Mr. Obama had $43.1 million on hand while Mr. McCain had $31.6 million – a significant but not overwhelming advantage.

There is also the cash raised by the Republican and Democratic National Committees. Each candidate depends on the party committees for certain expenditures – registration, voter identification and get-out-the-vote drives, materials distributed by volunteers, even some advertising. Here, the Republicans had $53.5 million in hand on May 31, versus the Democrats' paltry $4 million. Thus Mr. McCain and the RNC have $38 million more than Mr. Obama and the DNC.
If Mr. Obama maintains his prodigious fund-raising pace, he could overtake Mr. McCain and the RNC. But that's not guaranteed. In May, Mr. Obama raised $23.3 million and the DNC $4.8 million; but Mr. McCain raised $21.5 million and the RNC $24.4 million. Mr. Obama's Internet-driven fund raising may require a renewed sense of urgency, crisis and energy that may be hard to gin up until the race heats up with the conventions in late August.

The savvy Obama team believes they can raise considerably more than the $84 million Mr. McCain will receive by taking public financing in September for the general election. They realize this is likely to be a close, hard-fought contest and they want every advantage – their candidate's previous pledges to take public funds and criticism of money in politics notwithstanding.
Then, too, unions will give Mr. Obama an edge. The AFL-CIO has committed $53.4 million for the Democratic nominee, up $6 million from 2004. Other unions will chip in. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee has pledged $50 million.
There are other third-party groups. While the GOP may be seen as the party of Big Money, recent presidential contests have shown that – taking unions, George Soros's wealth, and organizations like MoveOn.Org into consideration – Democrats have a large financial advantage. In 2004, when each side's spending by candidates, national committees and third-party groups was totaled up, Democrats outspent Republicans in the presidential race by $119.4 million.
Mr. Obama has
used his money advantage to launch the air war. Starting June 20, Mr. Obama spent $4.3 million for 10 days of a televised, biographical ad covering 18 states. Mr. McCain countered on Monday with roughly $2.1 million for a week of ads in 11 states. Mr. Obama has now volleyed back, expanding his buy to 21 states for two additional weeks at a cost of $15 million – half for his original bio ad and half for a new ad on welfare reform.
But early television may not be as smart as it appears. Is it wise for Mr. Obama to spend almost as much on ads in three weeks in July as he raised in May? His fund raising peaked in February. June's fund-raising numbers, due in mid-July, will show whether his current pace of spending can be sustained. And TV becomes less effective in a general election, since so much free media attention is focused on the presidential candidates, whose actions have a larger impact than ads.
Mr. Obama's ads show he's aware of his vulnerability on two fronts: his liberal values and his meager achievements. Yet he should be more cautious with these weaknesses. His bio ad says he was raised with "values straight from the Kansas heartland," though he grew up in Hawaii. He claims to have passed three bills, but fails to mention that two were in the Illinois state Senate and that he didn't vote on the third in the U.S. Senate. His new ad praises welfare reform, yet he opposed the legislation when a Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed it.
Mr. Obama may be overreaching by running ads in North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, Nebraska, Montana, Alaska and North Dakota – states Republicans won by comfortable margins in recent years. It would require a shift of between one-sixth and over one-quarter of the vote to win any of them. Shifts that large rarely happen.
Big shifts do occur – witness West Virginia in 2000, which swung more than 20 points between 1996 (when Bill Clinton carried the state) and 2000 (when George W. Bush did) – but these require sharp contrasts on big issues, not just money. Money may be the mother's milk of politics, in Jesse Unruh's famous phrase, but when running for president, money alone can't buy a candidate love. Cash matters, but being a good candidate and right on the issues matters even more.