The Meaning of Obama's New Money Advantage


When Barack Obama recently announced that he'd shattered the single-month money record by raising $66 million in August, we said we were "impressed." But we also noted that to keep pace with John McCain and the Republican National Committee, "Obama and the DNC must rake in another $200 million or so before Nov. 4, which divies up as $100 million per month--or $17 million more than the $83 million they raised together in August." Our conclusion? The Illinois senator "still has a lot of work to do."

Well, the latest stats just trickled in, and it looks like Obama has done it. And then some. On Sunday morning, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe emailed supporters to announce that Democratic nominee had raised a shocking $150 million in September, more than doubling the previous monthly record and bringing his total take to about $604 million. To provide some perspective, that nearly matches the amount raised by all of 2004's major-party candidates--combined. (All told, Obama has raised an average of less than $100 from 3.1 million Americans.) Coupled with the DNC's healthy haul--$50 million total; $27.4 million in cash on hand--Obama's staggering September should propel the Democrats past McCain and the RNC for the first time, well, ever. As of Oct. 1, the Republicans had $124 million in the bank--$47 million in McCain's coffers and $77 million at the RNC. That's a lot of money. But given that Obama started September with $77 million on hand, it's safe to assume that he and the DNC finished the month (after spending was subtracted) with a war chest worth between $125 million and $175 million. [UPDATE: The final number is $160 million.] Most importantly, Obama controls between $100 million and $150 million of that pot. [UPDATE: $133 million.] McCain, meanwhile, is free to spend only a third of the Republican kitty.

The money gap has been especially evident since the start of October. Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6, Obama dropped about $20 million on television advertisements in 17 battleground states; the next week, he increased his outlay to $32 million. McCain, on the other hand, spent only $10 million on ads in 14 states during the second week of October, while the RNC chipped an additional $6 million. As a result, Obama is currently doubling the combined McCain-RNC TV budget--and directly outspending his rival more than three-to-one on the airwaves. (CMAG, a service that monitors political advertising, predicts Obama’s general election advertising campaign will surpass the $188 million George W. Bush spent in his 2004 campaign by early next week.) How does this affect the electorate? Take health care. Neither candidate has spent a ton of time talking about the issue. But Obama has flooded national TV markets with a series of (not always accurate) ads that characterize McCain's market-based plan as "radical" and accuse him of planning "drastic cuts to Medicare"--and McCain hasn't ponied up for a response.  Which may be why 54 percent of voters surveyed earlier this month by the New York Times and CBS News said they weren't confident McCain would "make the right decisions on health care." Only 10 percent said they were "very confident" he would.

Ultimately, the new cash disparity gives Obama a major messaging advantage. In public, the Illinois senator can appear to float above the fray. But in the privacy of America's living rooms, he can frame McCain's plans however he wants--dangerous, erratic, radical, out of touch, whatever. “What Obama is doing is being his own good cop and bad cop,” CMAG's Evan Tracey recently told The New York Times. Given the economic instability and the dismal political environment for Republicans, McCain can't afford to let his rival define him. But right now, it's looking like he can't afford not to, either.