How Obama’s Putting That Big Bank to Its Best Use

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Like a moose in the headlights. Photo: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images, iStockphoto

So Barack Obama shattered all expectations and records by raising an amazing $150 million last month. He entered October with about $134 million on hand, compared with just $47 million in the bank for John McCain. Exactly what does that advantage mean?

First, Obama is blowing McCain off the airwaves. This week, Obama will spend about $15 million to air ads on local TV stations and $12 million on national broadcast and cable networks, compared with McCain’s $10 million on local ads and nothing — nada — nationally. In plenty of markets across battleground states, there simply isn’t any more commercial time for advertisers of any kind to purchase before Election Day — Obama has bought it all up. And now he’s beaming into New Hampshire via Boston and into Indiana via Chicago. McCain, meanwhile, is on the air in places like Green Bay. You know, Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Of course, bombarding TV screens only works if viewers like what they see. In Obama’s case, they seem to: The more he has introduced himself to a national audience, the higher his favorability ratings have moved — which is one reason he’s buying a half-hour block of time on CBS, NBC, and Fox on October 29. And as Obama has heavily outspent McCain in places like Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia, he has taken leads in a slew of states George W. Bush carried in 2004.

Second, Obama is also dominating the ground game. The Obama campaign has by far the largest field operation in American political history. And applying well the lessons Bush and Karl Rove taught in 2004, they have connected to millions of persuadable voters in person. Result: a big edge to Democrats in new registrations and early voting.

Third, Obama can snuff out any gambits by McCain. A couple of weeks ago, McCain began targeting the Second Congressional District in Maine, which is one of two states that divides its electoral votes. This was clever: If McCain carries the Bush states besides Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado, and picks up New Hampshire and one district in Maine, which didn’t seem implausible at the time, he would eke out a 270–268 Electoral College win. Obama immediately countered by pouring resources into the Second Congressional District in Nebraska, the other state that apportions its electoral votes. McCain ended up sending Sarah Palin to campaign in Omaha and pulling out of Maine. That’s the kind of tit-for-tat Obama can afford to engage in, but McCain can’t.

Fourth, Obama’s financial advantage is contributing to a sense of inevitability about his victory and cutting off McCain’s oxygen in the media. Nationwide, this is just a seven-point race, and the contest showed signs of tightening in the past few days. But even conservative bloggers are now speculating more about who Obama’s Treasury Secretary will be than about a McCain comeback.

Finally, Obama’s money machine is killing what’s left of the ideal of publicly financing campaigns: After watching McCain hamstring himself in the general election, future candidates are hardly likely to take public money. But let’s be clear: When McCain weeps for campaign-finance reform, his are crocodile tears. For months, McCain has been funneling huge contributions to his campaign through state parties and the Republican National Committee, and in fact, the RNC had $77.5 million in cash on hand at the start of this month, versus $27.4 million for the Democratic National Committee. McCain and the GOP have been trying just as hard as the Dems to circumvent public financing. They just haven’t been as good at it as Obama. And then there’s this: The average donation to Obama’s stunning September haul was just $86. Which kinda makes you wonder: Maybe liberals supported campaign-finance reform in the first place only because they never imagined small donors could be as effective as they’ve been in the Obama campaign.