Whatever the causes, the consequences for Obama may prove dire. Burton reckons that, in the end, the cumulative spending on the Democratic side will be about $1 billion, compared with maybe $1.6 billion on the Republican side. And while the latter may be exaggerated for effect—other savvy Democrats put the GOP figure at more like $1.3 billion—there’s little doubt in either partisan camp that we are about to witness the improbable development of an incumbent president’s being financially overmatched.
“It concerns me gravely,” Plouffe tells me. “From a political standpoint, I’m almost as worried about that as I am about the question of what the economy’s gonna do over the next three or four months.”
Axelrod is endeavoring not to panic. “We don’t know yet how big a problem it will be,” he says. “We’re actually about to test the limits of what money can do in politics, because there’s gonna be so much of it concentrated in so few states. The real question is, at what point is so much too much?”
For anyone unlucky enough to reside in a battleground state, the answer is obvious: all too soon. (“You should give your TV to a friend,” Messina helpfully suggests.) But inherent in Axelrod’s query is an important point. Though political advertising matters a great deal in statewide races, its effect on presidential contests tends to be more muted, with the wall-to-wall news coverage on the air, in print, and online mattering far more. And ads are prone to be even less consequential when it comes to an incumbent, with whom voters have been living nonstop for nearly four years and of whom impressions are fairly deeply burned in. In the words of one Democratic media consultant, “How many times and how many different ways are you going to say, ‘Obama wrecked the economy’?”
And there is another possibility—one suggested by the storm of controversy around the proposal to superrich conservative Joe Ricketts that he finance an ad campaign focused on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Even when outside groups are run by people in possession of their faculties, they pose a challenge to campaigns in terms of maintaining strategic coherence. “Which is exactly why in 2008, we told our donors not to give to third-party groups,” a veteran of Obama’s first campaign says. “We were terrified of the inability to control message and where it would take us.”
With an assortment of right-wing magnates both champing at the bit and suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome, the super-PAC phenomenon may wind up inducing migraines in Romneyworld—and even in some cases redounding to Obama’s benefit, as it did with the Wright proposal. “Our reaction was, ‘Fucking bring it on!’ ” says the same Obama veteran, who is involved again this time. “It let us raise some righteous indignation in our base, send a shot across the bow to corporate leaders thinking of giving to these super-PACs, and go to African-American leaders and say, ‘Hey, you need to go out there! Threaten boycott against TD Bank! Do whatever you have to do to push back and gin up our side!’ ”
Nothing could more garishly illustrate a bedrock truth about the campaign that lies before us: It will bear about as much resemblance to 2008 as Romney does to Nicki Minaj. In the campaign prior, any mention of Wright caused a collective coronary in Chicago; this time, it provokes high-fives. In the campaign prior, Team Obama boldly bid to expand the map; this time, it is playing defense. In the campaign prior, the candidate himself sought support from the widest possible universe of voters; this time, instead of trying to broaden his coalition, he is laboring to deepen it. Indeed, 2012 is shaping up to be an election that looks more like 2004 than 2008: a race propelled by the mobilization of party fundamentalists rather than the courtship of the center.
If Obama wins a second term this way, the implications for governing could prove salutary—or god-awful. The president, energized by the prospect of a debate about “big things,” purports to take the optimistic view. “I think the general election will be as sharp a contrast between the two parties as we’ve seen in a generation,” Obama told Rolling Stone. “My hope is that if the American people send a message to [the GOP] … there’s going to be some self-reflection going on—that it might break the fever.” And, hey, who knows, crazier things have happened. Likelier, though, is that an incessantly negative, base-driven election will yield an uglier outcome. More polarization. More acrimony. More gridlock. (Yippee!)
What’s clear is that an Obama victory could have profound political implications for the future of the Democratic Party. When 44 arrived in office, some forecast that he might usher in a New New Deal. (Nope.) But if he gains reelection by consolidating his party’s position with the electorate’s ascendant demographic forces, Obama may succeed in creating a viable post–New Deal coalition on which Democrats can build for years to come. “Ronald Reagan turned a whole bunch of people who are now seniors into Republicans,” says Messina. “What is happening now is that young people, women, and Latinos are becoming Democrats. That’s the coalition Obama brought; demographics brought it, too. And for the next 30 years, it is going to be a real challenge for Republicans.”
Of course, if Obama loses, all such grand talk will be consigned to the ash heap of history—and hubris. And there are plenty of Democrats more jittery about that possibility than they were just a month ago. To their eyes, the president’s team seems off-kilter, his campaign off-brand, his rival finding his stride. “The natural gravity of this race is such that Romney will be close or a little bit ahead very soon, and it’s going to be like that through the convention,” says a Democratic strategist. “Romney doesn’t have idiots working for him; they’re going to run a safe, smart, tactical campaign.” And they have proven adept at one thing: “They kill well,” admits a senior White House official. “And that’s not unimportant.”
Amid all the chatter from the peanut gallery, the Obamans are keeping their eyes on the prize. In 2008, their campaign’s motto was “Respect, Empower, Include.” In 2012, at the direction of the president, a fourth word has been appended: “Win.” For all their brio, Obama’s people know their campaign could be derailed by myriad events outside their control: dismal job numbers, a spike in fuel prices, hostilities in Iran, an economic shock from Europe, the overturning by the Supreme Court of health-care reform.
Are the Obamans nervous? Healthily so, but they are also buoyed by a firm conviction. As Plouffe puts it, “This is going to be a very close race, but I’d rather be us than them.”