Washington: President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are on an unprecedented fundraising binge that shows no sign of ending before the November election.
The latest batch of fundraising numbers, out Thursday, showed Romney and the Republicans raised $76 million in May compared with $60 million for Obama and the Democrats. It was the first time Romney had moved ahead of Obama in the monthly total.
A month earlier, it was Obama and the Democrats’ $43.6 million compared with $40 million for Romney and the Republicans. Add the huge sums being spent by a new crowd of independent groups siding with one side or the other, and it’s by far the most expensive presidential election in history.
With polls showing a close race between Obama and Romney, especially as once-wary conservatives start to migrate to Romney in their passion to unseat Obama, both sides feel they can’t afford to back off. But the fundraising spree raises questions about the time spent chasing checks — and the promises being made to big donors in return.
Joe Trippi, who earned praise for tapping into the Internet to raise big dollars for Howard Dean in his unsuccessful race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, remembers what a big deal it was when Dean brought in $15 million in three months.
“They’re doing $15 million in a day now,” says Trippi. “It is sort of an arms race that is getting ridiculous.”
Obama did raise nearly $15 million last month from a single fundraiser at actor George Clooney’s home in Los Angeles.
Romney, for his part, picked up at least $15 million on a two-day trip to Texas this week.
Asked Thursday if he could beat Obama in the 2012 fundraising race, Romney said only: “Long way to go.”
Both sides have been working intently to stockpile cash now to use in the fall, when the TV ad buys will be relentless and there won’t be much time for fundraising. Each side is bracing for particularly tough attacks ads from the independent, so-called “super” political action committees that don’t have to answer to voters.
“There’s a reason all these people are giving all this money,” says Trippi. “They want things.”
Not everyone thinks all this money flooding into politics is a problem.
“More money in the campaigns is going to lead to better campaigns and more engagement,” says David Mason, a Republican appointee who served on the Federal Election Commission from 1998 to 2008. “Not everybody will like everything that’s done, but the kinds of things that campaigns will do when they have plenty of money are the kinds of things the Obama campaign did four years ago, which is to go deeper in their engagement strategies and try to come up with new tools.”
Former Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele says “all this angst about money in politics is really kind of wasted energy” because it will always be there, one way or the other. But Steele lamented the big money that super PACs on both sides will pour into ads that are “increasingly full of crap.”
“They’re distortions, they’re lies, fear-mongering, and that’s not having an intelligent conversation about important issues,” he said.
Also, Steele said, the time that candidates themselves must devote to fundraising comes at the expense of time with voters.
“That’s the Catch-22,” he said. “You need to be in front of the voters, but having the money in the bank helps you do that.”
Romney often holds just a few public campaign events per week while attending up to a dozen fundraisers. Even when he returns to full-time campaigning in the coming weeks, his advisers plan at least one fundraiser a day.
As of Thursday, Obama had attended 153 fundraisers since filing for re-election in April 2011, according to statistics kept by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. During a comparable period eight years ago, President George W. Bush had done 79 fundraisers.
Just this week, Obama took a two-day, two-city fundraising swing through California that brought in $5 million from five events, among them a dinner crowd that included comedian Ellen DeGeneres and the singer Cher.
The presidential hob-knobbing with celebrities at fundraisers has opened Obama to criticism from the right. “He’s becoming Barack Kardashian,” commentator Rush Limbaugh said this week.
White House press secretary Jay Carney shot back with two words: “Donald Trump.” He’s giving fundraising help to Romney.