Two days after the final debate, a contest that Barack Obama is widely supposed to have won, there has been no improvement in his numbers. But then, no one expected there to be.
By now, all but the most “undecided” of voters have made their decision, and each desperate pitch is being made to ever smaller and more specific groups of voters. Most people are yearning for it to be over — indeed, there is a sort of weird anger at the undecideds, who are now just being called plain stupid, as if a sudden attack of decisiveness on their part might bring the thing forward.
More keen than anyone to have the thing over are the Democrats, as they watch their lead slowly ebb away. Were the election to be held today, it is most likely that Obama would still take it, with a narrow hold on Ohio, a chance at Florida, and a competitive run at the medium states — Colorado, Virginia and Iowa — sufficient to block Romney’s various paths to victory. But there is keen debate as to whether that slim lead is holding, or whether it is being slowed, ground down to a Romney lead across all swing states. Obama’s comprehensive lead collapsed after the first debate, but has it stayed in an even keel ever since, or slowly declined further?
For the Republicans, there’s a story attached to this construction of the poll movements — Obama has been “finally unmasked”. The scales have fallen from people’s eyes, they’ve seen through the rhetoric and glamour of the President, and that’s why they’re slowly coming around to Romney. The Democrats, for their part, refuse to accept the drift analogy at all, arguing Romney’s numbers came in after the first debate and have stayed where they were after that pretty awful showing by the Prez.
But the simple truth might be something acknowledged by neither camp: the power of money is simply overwhelming the Democrats. Though Obama has a larger war chest than the Republicans, the “soft money” created by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision — allowing for unlimited spending on political advertising not directly funding a candidate — has substantially gone the Republicans’ way.
The amount of straight candidate-based political spending is itself phenomenal enough. So far the two campaigns have spent nearly $670 million on direct campaign ads, with the Romney campaign leading $348 million to $317 million. The biggest spend has been in Florida with $133 million (Dems: $62 million; GOP: $71 million), $119 million in Virginia (Dems: $54 million; GOP: $65 million), with Ohio coming in third, $118 million evenly split. But even smaller spends in some markets have generated huge ad blizzards — $4 million in southern Maine (which splits its electoral college vote by congressional seat) has bought 10,000 ads in a market which only has a half-dozen TV stations, all playing old Lucy episodes. Elsewhere, the residents of Cleveland and north-east Ohio have had 40,000 ads thrown at them.
But the profile of the spend differs between the two parties. On the Democrat side, the bulk of the donation and spending has been directly through Obama as a candidate, with $264 million spent directly, compared to only $118 million from Romney. Just behind that is Karl Rove’s duo of Super PACs — “American Crossroads” and “Crossroads GPS” (two wings of the same organisation, for obscure legal reasons) — who have spent $111 million, with two other pro-Romney groups just behind, throwing in another $113 million.
The split indicates how essential the Citizens United and related Supreme Court decisions have been to the Republican effort. Obama’s ability to raise money from small and medium individual donors remains unparalleled. So far Obama has raised $555 million, of which a third — $196 million — has come from small donors, folks giving under $100, and another $250 million from those between $200 and $1000. Romney’s small donor intake is $60 million out of a total of $364 million raised. Of the big donors — those who max out the $5000 they can give to any individual candidate — the differences are interesting. Such donors are effectively “bundled” — organisers in specific workplaces go around organising 10, 50, 100 people to pledge the maximum amount — and it’s interesting to see where they come from. The source of Obama’s supporters: Uni of California, Microsoft, Google, Harvard and the federal civil service. For Romney? Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse.
But it’s the Super PACs driving the Republican bus. Together the Crossroads group and “Restore Our Future”, another pro-Romney group, have spent $225 million, with another $65 million added by “Americans For Prosperity” and the US Chamber of Commerce. The only Democrat Super PAC that appears in the top five is “Priorities USA” with $50 million.
Crucially, the fundraising effort for Super PACs is much easier than the hard graft of small donations. The top five Super PAC contributors are all Republicans, and include plutocrats like Sheldon Adelson and William Koch. Together, they’ve given $40 million between them — and they’ll give more if they feel it’s necessary. Adelson has said he would spend up to $80 million to defeat Obama. Whether the Democrats are matching this through other means is impossible to say — one effect of Citizens United is that corporations and organisations can spend money directly on advertising and other support, without disclosing anything.
Sorting out this spending is a matter of combing through Federal Election Commission records and ad buys. But roughly, when such groups are added in, the shadow money in this election is heavily tilted towards the Republicans — $600 million to $280 million.
It’s this money, this gap, that may be slowly overwhelming the Democratic effort. People who’ve never seen the convention speeches or the debates will see a blizzard of ads in the middle of sitcoms, reality shows — and above all The Andy Griffith Show, an endlessly repeated ancient sitcom, last taped in 1968 and which, believe it or not, is the show with the third largest ad-buy for Republican ads overall.
There’s a lot of debate about what sort of effect an outspend could have — at the very least it gives the Romney campaign spending parity, not via free citizens but via capital. Had Romney tried to rely on individual citizens alone he would have been in a dire state indeed. With the prospect of a last-minute ad blitz by the plutocrats, to buy Romney the election, many will be hoping the “saturation” effect is in play — that after a certain point, such ads produce diminishing returns, sliding towards zero.
And if not, there will be a reckoning as to why the Democrats failed to tap the sources of liberal capital, and were so slow off the mark in the new free-for-all of American political money.
*Statistics drawn from The Washington Post, National Journal and Opensecrets.org