Did Obama Buy the Presidency?

Dec 4, 2008 11:12am

ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: The final fundraising and spending reports from the presidential campaign are due by midnight Thursday to the Federal Election Commission — and the numbers will almost certainly play out in stark detail what we’ve long known: That Barack Obama badly, ridiculously outspent John McCain.

Obama’s total fundraising number is expected to top $750 million — more than the total raised by George W. Bush and John Kerry combined in 2004. When you factor in money raised for the Democratic National Committee, the convention, the transition, and the inauguration, Obama may wind up being the first ever billion-dollar politician.

By contrast, McCain and the Republican National Committee had in the neighborhood of $500 million to spend for the general election — an astounding figure by itself, but not even close to Obama money.

This is no small shift. Democrats for decades have struggled to achieve fundraising parity with Republicans at the national level, and all of a sudden this first-term US senator blew all the precedents out of the water.

It’s also likely to spark a renewed discussion over whether Obama bought the presidential election.

Karl Rove makes that case Thursday in his Wall Street Journal column.

“If money talks, we’ll likely soon hear the real reason why Barack Obama beat John McCain,” Rove writes. “Rather than showing the success of a new style of post-partisan politics, Mr. Obama’s victory may show the enduring truth of the old Chicago Golden Rule: He who has the gold rules.”

Obama famously broke a pledge to run with public financing, despite McCain’s decision to stick with the system that every candidate for more than 30 years has utilized.

This freed Obama to raise and spend as much as he could, all while McCain could spend just $84 million during the general election. (The RNC — and, of course, outside groups — were free to spend more on McCain’s behalf, but Obama could also benefit from similar groups on the Democratic side.)

Surely the forces that boosted Obama to the presidency were not all commodities to be purchased. Even McCain has acknowledged the powerful pull his message and his biography had on the electorate, in a year where the Republican brand was in tatters.

But it’s worth remembering the enormous advantage Obama’s virtually unlimited kitty provided him.

Money — probably more than message — allowed him to expand the map. In short, he didn’t have to make any tough spending choices, allowing him to invest heavily in advertising and field operations in traditionally Republican states, even while continuing to outspend McCain in traditional battlegrounds.

“From Obama’s standpoint, he could basically play all the hunches,” said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising spending. “They had more money than there was TV time to buy.”

Obama spent about $236 million in TV ads in the general election, on top of about $70 million in the primaries, according CMAG data. Contrast that with $126 million McCain and the RNC spent in the general (plus another $37 million spent on McCain’s behalf by the RNC’s “independent expenditure” arm), and $10 million McCain spent on television in the primaries.

Drilling down a bit, it’s clear that the Obama campaign maximized the impact of its spending. CMAG data shows Obama having spent $8.9 million more than McCain in the Miami media market and $7 million more in the Tampa area; Obama flipped Florida en route to his election victory.

Obama had a $5.1 million TV edge in Indianapolis and spent $1.7 million more than McCain in Chicago, mostly to reach Indiana voters. He spend $2.2 million more than McCain in Boston — helping him hold New Hampshire — as well as $3 million more in Cleveland, and $4 million in Philadelphia.

In Washington, DC, the spending edge was staggering: Obama spent $11.2 million more than McCain, primarily to reach Virginia voters (as well as opinion leaders who live in the Washington area).

On Election Day, the Northern Virginia counties of Prince William and Loudon flipped from red to blue — as did the Old Dominion State.

Rove uses the Obama spending advantage to argue that the current campaign-finance system — which limits individual donations to $2,300 per candidate for the primary, and $2,300 for the general — should be scrapped.

“It is time to trust the American people and remove limits on how much an individual can donate to a campaign,” he writes.

There’s a lot of talk about needing to, at the very least, revise the public-financing system, to recognize the vast fundraising potential realized by Obama.

What do you think should be done — if anything — in time for the next cycle?

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