Sen. Barack Obama's decision to forgo public financing for his presidential campaign clears the way for him to outspend Sen. John McCain by 3-to-1 or substantially more in the general election, a financial edge that dramatically rewrites the playbooks for both candidates.
With the possibility of spending perhaps $500 million just in the final two months of the campaign, Obama will be the first major-party candidate to enjoy a spending edge in the general election in more than 30 years. The comparison with the consistently cash-strapped McCain campaign could hardly be more stark.
"It'll be like George Steinbrenner's Yankees in the '90s — an All-Star at every position — against the '90s Kansas City Royals, barely able to meet their payroll," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
Though Obama risks a short-term political backlash by seeming to go back on his word, Democratic and Republican strategists say most campaigns would take such a hit in exchange for the unprecedented cash advantage he'll derive.
McCain said Thursday he will accept public financing, meaning he'll be limited to spending only $84.1 million in the critical window between the Republican National Convention and Election Day. He'll be forced to lean more heavily on the Republican National Committee and outside groups that he cannot legally coordinate spending decisions with.
In that same time period, Obama will continue to be free to raise and spend unlimited amounts — with advertising specialists and party insiders projecting that he will bring in hundreds of millions of dollars, utilizing and expanding on the most efficient fundraising operation in American political history.
"He's going to be able to raise almost unimaginable amount of money," said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who was a top adviser in the Gore and Kerry campaigns. "This is an incredible advantage for him and his campaign. He'll be able to dictate the terms of this election."
"This is bigger than Obama being ahead in the polls," Devine continued. "This means he can be the aggressor."
Some party strategists say Obama could use his immense cash advantage to run a national ad campaign akin to marketing drives run by companies like McDonald's and Nike, while simultaneously engaging in targeted, state-level organizing that could leave McCain on the defensive in states that have rarely been competitive in years past.
On Thursday, Obama released his first ad since wrapping up the Democratic nomination, and it hints at the potential scope of ad buys to come. His message will run in 18 states, including perennial Republican strongholds Alaska, Montana, North Carolina, and North Dakota, as well as classic swing states Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"If the ad buy looks like this in October, this election's over," said Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He's competing in red states, and he doesn't even feel he needs to advertise in blue states."
Obama's decision could also hasten the end of the post-Watergate campaign-financing system that has leveled presidential playing fields for more than three decades. Both major-party candidates have opted into the public campaign-finance system since it was put into place in time for the 1976 elections.