Oct. 23, 2008 -- Sen. Barack Obama's record-shattering fundraising haul is giving him unprecedented spending flexibility over the final two weeks of the presidential campaign and the ability to swamp Sen. John McCain's campaign on the air and on the ground wherever Obama and his top aides choose.
While McCain entered October with only $47 million left to spend over the balance of the race, Obama had $133.6 million in cash on hand -- even after Obama outspent McCain 2-1 last month.
The $50 million cash advantage held by the Republican National Committee over its Democratic counterpart helps McCain. But that edge does not begin to address the overall disparity, in part because the McCain campaign is not permitted to have direct control of RNC funds.
Because Obama broke a pledge to broker an agreement with McCain to run with public dollars, his money -- unlike McCain's -- continues to roll in. Assuming his staggering fundraising pace is maintained over the campaign's closing weeks, Obama could wind up raising three-quarters of a billion dollars on his campaign -- more than John Kerry and George W. Bush combined spent in 2004.
"It gives you such a strategic advantage, to do whatever you want wherever you want," said Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic strategist. "It allows you to stay on the offensive at all times."
McCain's comparative cash crunch has forced him to sharply curtail the number of states he's competing in. Obama, meanwhile, is able to open up new fronts, while simultaneously pouring money into Democratic-leaning states, and finding new ways to reach voters via advertising and get-out-the-vote techniques.
In one striking example of Obama's financial prowess, Obama has purchased network TV time for the evening of Oct. 29. And he's continuing to build his ground operations in critical states, hiring staffers and opening offices in places where McCain is relying on volunteers.
The RNC has helped McCain retain a modicum of spending parity. But those funds are also needed for other purposes, primarily party get-out-the-vote efforts, and the McCain campaign, by law, can't have direct control of ad buys and messaging decisions.
Obama Can Stay On Offensive 24/7
With his campaign in full control of its bank account, Obama has launched a new advertising push in recent days in West Virginia and is pressing his case in North Carolina. Aides say they're still considering putting more resources into Georgia and North Dakota as well -- states that had long-ago faded from Democrats' realistic wish lists.
Obama's travel schedule over the final two weeks focuses heavily on states carried by President Bush in 2004, including Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia. Obama is campaigning Thursday in Indiana, before leaving the trail to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii.
Perhaps most significantly, the financial edge allows the Obama campaign to play out the final stages of the campaign without having to make any of the gut-wrenching decisions that typically mark a campaign's close.
"We don't have to make tough choices," said one Obama aide, speaking on condition on anonymity. "We're able to fight in all the places we want to until the bitter end."
No recent Democratic candidate has had that luxury. In 2004, for instance, Kerry made strategic decisions to forego Missouri and West Virginia to keep his focus on Ohio and Florida -- both of which he eventually lost, along with the presidency.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore was forced to pull out of Ohio late in the campaign, to train his efforts on Florida -- where, of course, he narrowly lost following a Supreme Court decision to halt a recount. And Gore didn't advertise in the expensive Boston media market late in the race, where, if he had reached enough New Hampshire voters, he might have clinched the election without Florida and its recount.
"The outcome of the election in my view would have been different if we had anything resembling this spending advantage," said Devine, who was a senior Gore strategist in 2000.
Public financing limits give McCain only $84.1 million to spend between the convention and Election Day. Obama's ability to spend at will has forced McCain into an almost entirely defensive posture.
Obama Offensive Casts Pall Over GOP Efforts
McCain is competing mostly to hold on to the states Bush won four years ago. He abandoned his efforts in Michigan, and the only Kerry states where he's still running aggressively are Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Hampshire. With the exception of Pennsylvania -- where some polls show him down by a double-digit margin -- he's scaled back his investment in all of those states.
Obama, by contrast, is flooding the airwaves in "red" states, while continuing to match McCain more than dollar-for-dollar in most "blue" states. He's been outspending McCain 3-1 in Florida and Indiana, 4-1 in Virginia and 8-1 in North Carolina, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks ad spending nationwide.
Scott Reed, a Republican political consultant, said the cash edge is having another impact on the race: a psychological one.
"It casts a cloud over the Republicans. They have a feeling that it's an impossible task to come back," said Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "But it's been countered by these poll numbers that show Obama still under 50 percent. Obama's having trouble closing the deal."
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters this week that he'd love to have Obama's cash edge -- joking that he'd like Obama to put some of his money in the stock market, to help the economy recover and boost McCain's chances of a political comeback.
With the RNC supplementing the McCain campaign's spending, Davis said he is confident that McCain is competing in enough states to ensure that money isn't the deciding factor.
"Does it put us at a financial disadvantage? Absolutely," he said. "We feel good about the level of competition ... We're still in the game."
McCain has also sought to highlight the fact that Obama initially said he would accept public funds, only to jettison that pledge when it became clear that he could dramatically outspend his rival.
Davis and others have criticized Obama for not revealing the names of donors who have given him less than $200 -- despite Obama's pride in the volume of low-dollar donations.
Dems Invoke 'Powell Doctrine' of Overwhelming Superiority
Still, the spending has given Obama far more paths to the presidency than McCain. And it's kept McCain from getting traction with his own messaging.
Obama took one of McCain's best lines at the final presidential debate -- asserting his differences with President Bush -- and turned it into a quick advertisement that made the opposite argument.
In addition, despite McCain's efforts to paint Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal, Obama has flooded the airwaves with ads highlighting McCain's plan to tax healthcare benefits.
One result: A majority of voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll say they trust Obama over McCain on the issue of taxes; no Democrat has enjoyed such an edge on that issue since Bill Clinton in 1992.
The money has also given Obama the opportunity to find new ways to reach voters. The campaign is advertising in video games, in addition the to the half-hour primetime network broadcasts -- a proposition that's far too expensive for most recent presidential campaigns to even consider.
Devine, the Democratic strategist, likened Obama's efforts to a political version of the "Powell Doctrine": "If you're going to go in, go in with overwhelming superiority. They're able to totally control the message."