When all is said and done, the two champions of campaign finance reform, Obama and John McCain, will go down in history as the first two major party nominees to spend a combined $1 billion.
That figure, which doesn’t include the money shelled out by their national parties, was widely predicted at the start of the 2008 election cycle. The surprise is that it was reached with one candidate playing inside the limits imposed by the presidential financing system and the other staying outside of them.
But having money and spending it wisely are often two different things.
So here is Politico’s take on the best and worst financial decisions of the 2008 presidential campaign.
1. Obama’s gamble to stay out of the presidential financing system. The decision allowed the Illinois Democrat to fully implement a campaign strategy that simply was too expensive for the system’s $85 million allotment. It also allowed him to continue building a broad grass-roots base and play in both red and blue states, on offense and defense.
2. McCain’s decision last winter to leverage a suggestion that he would enter the primary race’s public financing system into securing bank loans that helped him stay outside of it. Once he wrapped up his party’s nomination, the Arizona Republican declared he never really intended to enter the public financing program, even though he filled out the paperwork to do so. He then aggressively began raising money to build the national operation he needed to compete in the fall. He also had the resources to defend himself and go on the attack on television in the notoriously risky weeks leading up to the GOP and Democratic party conventions.
3. Obama’s embrace of Internet fundraising, which twins with the campaign’s best hire: Facebook founder Chris Hughes, 24, and other members of his young Internet squad. They built one of the most vibrant and interactive Internet fundraising operations in history. The computer wizards also came up with the idea of buying Internet ad space on billboards embedded inside online games. Talk about real world meeting the virtual one.
4. Adoption of the “If you can’t beat them, bankrupt them" strategy. That must have been the cry of Obama’s Pennsylvania primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton had to win the Keystone State to stay in the race. Obama, down in the polls, sunk about $15 million into television advertising there anyway, forcing Clinton to try to keep pace. She won the primary, but emerged broke. Meanwhile, Obama leaped ahead of her to the next primary states, flush with cash and dominating the airwaves. Clinton never caught up.
5. The toughest decision of all sometimes is to do nothing, but that’s what Ron Paul did when a group of true believers set up their own fundraising drive on his behalf. Actually, Paul did do one thing: He welcomed them. Drawn by his anti-war, libertarian philosophy, they poured $35 million into the little-known Texan congressman’s campaign.
1. The Republican National Committee’s impulse to spend $150,000 on designer clothing for vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her family. The outlay undercut Palin’s hockey mom image, caused a tsunami of bad publicity, and outraged RNC donors who gave money for voter turnout operations, not Valentino alterations.
2. The front-loaded spending of McCain’s primary campaign, which spent more money than it raised during the early months of the primary battle and wound up bankrupt by August. The early money woes erased McCain’s front-runner status and left his campaign hobbled until his comeback in New Hampshire. Even then, McCain lacked the resources to put his competitors away. e faced lingering and sometimes embarrassing challenges from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Paul, whose candidacies were used by social conservatives and libertarians to register their discomfort with McCain.
3. Obama’s squishy promise to confer with his Republican opponent before making a decision to opt out of the presidential financing system in the general election. Although the “pledge” had a Swiss cheese quality to it, Obama might have had at least one conversation with McCain before declaring his intention to opt out of the system. The decision probably was inevitable, but that was all the more reason for some finesse.
4. McCain’s decision in the final days of the race to continue airing advertisements in Iowa and New Mexico and a host of other apparent lost causes. This goes into the category of throwing good money after bad. If defeated, McCain is likely to face questions about whether those resources should have been shifted into such critical and perhaps more winnable states as Florida and Ohio.
5. Republican Mitt Romney’s investment of $45 million in a presidential primary campaign that yielded 249 delegates. That’s about $181,000 per delegate, paid by a candidate whose major argument for elevation to the Oval Office was his financial and business expertise.