- - Monday, September 17, 2012

It’s strange how Republicans’ fundraising is highlighted and President Obama’s has so long been ignored. The 2012 presidential campaign spending story has been super PACs and how Republicans dominate them. Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s overwhelming funding advantage in 2008 and so far this year — and its effect on his success — remains overlooked.

The Citizens United case of 2010 rewrote the book on campaign fundraising. It allows virtually unlimited donations to, and spending by, political action committees (PACs) in campaigns as long as their efforts are not coordinated with a candidate’s.

There is ample reason for the focus on Republican super PACs. The National Journal’s Hotline publishes a weekly tally of campaign spending in 13 battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin) where the election’s outcome will be decided. The latest figures show a pronounced Republican advantage in super PAC spending this year: $229 million to Democrats’ $57 million.

Forgotten in this recent interest in Republicans’ super PAC advantage is Mr. Obama’s own fundraising dominance — and its implications for his political fortunes. Taken together, the real story of 2012’s fundraising is not Republicans’ decided superiority, but super PACs’ partial mitigation of Mr. Obama’s funding advantage. So far in 2012, total Republican battleground spending only slightly surpasses Democrats’: $317 million to $299 million. The reason for the closeness is Mr. Obama.

Overwhelming fundraising superiority has defined Mr. Obama’s presidential campaigns. According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) 2008 records, Mr. Obama raised $745.7 million to John McCain’s $350.1 million.

A June 8, 2009, FEC press release described Mr. Obama’s cash coup: “It was the first time in the history of presidential public financing that a major party nominee declined to accept public funds for the general election. The Obama campaign’s total receipts are equivalent to more than half of the $1.49 billion provided in public funds to all presidential candidates, parties and conventions since the inception of the public funding program.”

This lopsided edge — when focused on potential swing states — gave Mr. Obama an enormous edge. He used it to win an electoral vote landslide and, by a 6.3 percent popular vote margin, the largest Democratic percentage since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Obama’s campaign fundraising dominance continues. Again according to the National Journal battleground tabulation, he and the Democratic National Committee have spent $242 million to Mitt Romney’s and the Republican National Committee’s $87 million.

Super PAC spending doesn’t negate this. Because Mr. Obama’s edge is with his campaign, this gives him greater control over his message, media markets and timing. Mr. Romney cannot control what Republican super PACs do.

Mr. Obama also gets more bang for his bucks. Campaign spending, assuming it meets legal stipulations, receives the “lowest unit charge” — the lowest commercial rate broadcasters charge commercial customers. Super PACs, where Republicans’ edge is, do not get this guarantee.

The big difference between this campaign and the last is Mr. Obama’s inability to get the same return on his investment. USA Today/Gallup’s battleground poll, released Aug. 20, showed Mr. Obama well within the margin of error against Mr. Romney among registered voters: 47 percent to 45 percent.

That’s identical to the same organization’s May 2 poll — almost a month before Mr. Romney ended a grueling primary campaign. It is far less than the 51 percent to 42 percent advantage Mr. Obama enjoyed in the same poll on March 26, when the Republican primary was in full swing.

Mr. Obama cannot get separation from Mr. Romney and he cannot expect the overwhelming cash clout this time. Mr. Romney has outraised Mr. Obama in three of the last four months and is believed to have a cash reserve lead (the Obama campaign has not released its figure, but the Romney campaign has roughly $170 million cash on hand). Mr. Obama has spent; Mr. Romney has bankrolled.

Mr. Obama benefited mightily from an Olympian spending advantage in 2008. Not in 2012. As in an Olympic track race, Mr. Obama already may have made his “spending move,” while Mr. Romney still has his “cash kick” to come.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.