Before the votes, it's cash that counts
WASHINGTON // As the presidential election winds down, Barack Obama's fund-raising machine is ramping up, shattering records and giving him tens of millions of dollars more to spend on advertising than his Republican opponent, John McCain. Mr Obama's campaign raked in an unprecedented $150 million (Dh551m) in September, more than twice the previous record high of $66m, which his campaign raised in August.
Flush with cash, Mr Obama also enjoys at least a 4-1 advantage in television advertising nationwide, according to the Virginia-based Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG). Not only can Mr Obama afford to drown out the message of his rival in states where both candidates are advertising, he also is buying airtime in markets where Mr McCain cannot afford a presence. And last week, his campaign began running ads in a place no candidate ever has: the virtual world, where he purchased space in 18 online games played on Microsoft's Xbox. Mr Obama also has a 30-minute infomercial slated for a simulcast next week on three of the four major networks. The spot is expected to delay the start of game six of the World Series, if there is one.
"There really isn't anything Obama can't do when it comes to advertising," said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer at CMAG. "There is probably more money that Obama has access to than there is TV time to buy." Mr Obama's financial strength stems from a decision to opt out of the federal campaign finance system, making him the first major-party candidate to do so in the general election since the framework was established in 1976. Had he agreed, as he originally indicated he would, Mr Obama's spending would have been capped at $84m, and he would have been prohibited from accepting private donations. Many have criticised Mr Obama for opting out of the system, which was designed to limit the influence of money in politics.
Mr McCain, who agreed to accept public money, has spent $32.3m so far, nearly two-thirds on advertising, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission. Under public financing rules, Mr McCain can also benefit from advertisements funded by the Republican National Committee, which has no restrictions on its spending, but can spend only $19 million in direct co-ordination with the campaign.
Still, the Republican candidate is coming millions short of the amount Mr Obama has at his disposal. The Democrat spent about $36 million on advertising last week compared with Mr McCain's $9.5m, Mr Tracey said. Mr Obama's buy-in included 250 spots on national networks and 1,000 on cable TV, which have run in all 50 states. Since June 20, Mr Obama has outspent Mr McCain $180m to $110m. "Seventy million dollars buys a lot of ads," Mr Tracey said.
The advantage has allowed Mr Obama to dominate the airwaves in every key battleground state, including some once thought to be out of his reach. In the traditional conservative strongholds of North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and even Indiana - which George W Bush carried by 20 points in 2004 - Mr Obama has saturated the airwaves, forcing Mr McCain to spend money in states many once thought were safe.
The Democrat has also reached deep into Republican territory, buying time in states like West Virginia, Georgia and North Dakota, where he has little chance of pulling an upset but where Mr McCain cannot afford to defend himself. "He's in a position where he can run a full-blown media campaign in the battleground states and extend his advertising into the second-tier states," said Anthony Corrado, an expert on campaign finance at Colby College in Maine.
"He is not in a position where he has to make a decision about where to spend money in the final days." Meanwhile, strapped for cash, Mr McCain pulled his campaign out of Michigan, a state he had hoped to wrest from Democrats. The RNC last week yanked its ads from Wisconsin, another narrowly Democratic state where Republicans saw an opening. Even in Pennsylvania, where Mr McCain has campaigned vigorously, he is being outspent by Mr Obama and is losing ground in the polls.
But it is not all doom and gloom for the Republican. Mr Tracey of CMAG expects Mr McCain to close the gap in the final two weeks as he empties his coffers. And Adam Armbruster, a television advertising expert in New Jersey, said Mr McCain still has time to get his message across in key states. "He needs a very concentrated and very bold and clear attack - one sentence that's powerful," he said, adding that Mr McCain's message so far has been too inconsistent to stick. "There is plenty of time left? for a simple, bold statement, but it has to be a knockout punch."
That approach could be problematic for Mr McCain, however. Polls show that more than half of voters believe Mr McCain has run a negative campaign, particularly in recent weeks as the Republican strategy turned increasingly to attacks on Mr Obama's character. A study by the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin that analysed advertisements from Sept 28 to Oct 4 showed that all of Mr McCain's ads included an attack on Mr Obama, while just 34 per cent of Mr Obama's included an attack on Mr McCain.
But the numbers even out going back further in the campaign. Between June 4 and Oct 4, 74 per cent of Mr McCain's ads took a shot at Mr Obama, and 61 per cent of Mr Obama's ads included an attack on Mr McCain. But with his political fortune, Mr Obama has the luxury of a two-pronged approach - using both positive and negative ads - said Mr Corrado, the campaign finance expert. "Obama is able to match McCain ad for ad on the negative side and then run two positive ads for every negative ad," he said. The Obama campaign "is able to get more message out and do more advertising, which makes it much more difficult for McCain's message to be heard".