In the long and checkered history of campaign fund raising in American politics, September may go down as a transformational month. In that time, Barack Obama raised a record of more than $150 million. The previous record: the $66 million he collected in August.
It means a huge gamble Obama took last spring has paid off, and now every succeeding presidential candidate will have to calculate the same odds. Obama had promised to accept public financing if Sen. John McCain did, and then beguiled by his ability to raise money, he broke that commitment, becoming the first presidential candidate since the campaign reforms were enacted in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal to reject public money. McCain regularly chastises Obama for breaking his word but politically Obama would have been foolish if he hadn’t and even McCain’s fellow Republicans are now beginning to second-guess him.
While Obama can spend whatever he raises, McCain’s campaign is restricted to the $84.1 million it received in public money. Given what he has already spent, McCain has about $47 million to last him until Election Day.
The political parties can raise and spend funds separately on behalf of the candidates, and the Republicans haven’t done badly, out raising the Democrats in September by $66 million to $50 million, but that doesn’t begin to make up for Obama’s cash advantage.
The money has given Obama a 3 to 1 edge in TV ads, enabling him to buy up large blocs of time close to Election Day — thus denying that time to McCain; to advertise and campaign heavily in the battleground states and it allows him to campaign in red states like West Virginia and North Carolina that he might otherwise be forced to write off the way McCain was forced to write off Michigan. And Obama has been able to build a huge on-the-ground operation of campaign staff and offices.
If Obama wins, that huge campaign war chest may make him susceptible to the charge of having bought the election but in politics victory tends to be its own justification. McCain believes that gusher of cash will bring corruption and scandal and surely many of those donors didn’t have the most honorable of motives.
Unless Congress drastically revises public financing of presidential campaigns, that well-intentioned law may have been permanently overwhelmed by Obama’s fund-raising prowess.