Obama is attempting to become the first candidate to privately finance the general election phase of his campaign, and his August performance seems to be a good start.
His announcement that he had $77 million in cash in the bank at the end of August came strikingly close to the roughly $85 million in taxpayer funds that Republican John McCain has to spend on the entire general election.
But the August sum came after a full-court press by the campaign and in the midst of the Democratic convention, historically an easier time to generate donations because the party base is focused and united. The campaign announced that it had recruited 500,000 new donors in August, which brings the number of total contributors to 2.5 million.
Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's selection as McCain's running mate has lit up the Republican National Committee's online fundraising, creating a vibrant and fresh source of income to add to the party's already formidable big donor program.
RNC officials said Internet donations have quadrupled since Palin joined the ticket.
While Obama's campaign coffers are brimming, an effort to funnel money into battleground state party committees lags far behind campaign goals and Republican giving.
Finally, McCain-friendly outside groups already are mobilizing and launching independent attack ads on the Illinois senator. Meanwhile, Obama has sent word to the Democratic community that he wouldn't welcome similar independent groups working on his behalf — essentially sidelining what could have been critical allies.
Those complex dynamics are likely to put additional pressure on Obama and his financing team. The enormity of the task is already fraying nerves in Chicago and eating into the Illinois senator’s campaign time as the campaign combs the country for both small and big donations.
“It’s a logistically challenging fundraising environment they face, because time is not on their side and their goals are so ambitious,” said Anthony Corrado, an expert on money and politics.
“Do the math. They have to raise about $3 million a day” to reach an estimated target of about $200 million, he added.
That helps explain why a steady stream of electronic donation appeals was flying out of the Obama headquarters throughout the Democratic convention in Denver.
“I’d like to thank you for the warm welcome I’ve received as the newest member of this campaign,” opened one video message from Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the vice presidential nominee. The e-mail closed with the obligatory red donate button.
“My mom, the girls and I left home in Chicago and got to Denver yesterday,” opened Michelle Obama’s appeal. “I am so lucky to be married to the woman who delivered that speech last night,” crowed Obama in his own appeal, signed simply Barack.
Similar appeals were dispatched during the Republicans’ convention the following week in St. Paul, Minn.
“I wasn’t planning on sending you something tonight. But if you saw what I saw from the Republican convention, you know that it demands a response,” campaign manager David Plouffe wrote after Palin mocked Obama’s work as a community organizer.
The appeal, and Palin’s attacks, helped Obama raise a record $10 million in single day.
Big donors are equally inundated but they are costlier targets since many of those donors reside outside of the critical swing states.
Tuesday, Obama is scheduled to be in Beverly Hills, a Zip code that is home to plenty of Democratic money but in a state whose electoral votes he already has in the bag. Money raised will go to the Democratic National Committee and his own campaign.
At 5 pm., he’ll headline a $28,500-per-head affair followed by a 7 p.m. $2,500 reception that has Barbra Streisand as an added draw. He’ll also attend an Asian-Americans reception “and photo line,” which carries a $28,500 price tag.
Biden is also carrying a crammed fundraising schedule and an impressive array of other surrogates are also lending their names to the cash cause.
Caroline Kennedy is crisscrossing the country this month headlining events from California to Connecticut. Former Vice President Al Gore and actress Gwyneth Paltrow will be hitting up Americans abroad at two London affairs.
Although some of Hillary Clinton’s big fundraisers haven’t joined Obama’s campaign — and some haven’t been heavily courted to join — the senator herself is the main draw for a New York event. And the recently reached détente between the Obama camp and former President Bill Clinton’s circle undoubtedly adds another major player to the effort.
But even with all that star power, Obama has taken on a extraordinary burden that is complicated by his unprecedented ground game strategy for the fall and the late close to the primary season.
In July, Obama spent $57 million — more than any prior month and more than the $51 million he collected that month. A large chunk of that cash went to the salaries of his expanding field operation.
His expenses for August were a bit higher because of the extensive advertising he aired that month — including a run of commercials during NBC’s broadcast of the Beijing Olympics.
The lengthy primary robbed Obama of a chance to save some money by engaging in coordinated campaign activities, such as sharing office costs and doing joint mailings with other Democratic candidates running for federal and state offices. In New Hampshire, for instance, the Obama campaign had to lease its own headquarters in Manchester because the already-established coordinated campaign headquarters didn’t have enough room for the newcomers.
In contrast, McCain has had months to lay the groundwork for a fully coordinated effort between his Virginia operations and the RNC.
Unlike Obama, McCain decided to accept public financing for the general election leg of the 2008 race. That means he and Palin can’t raise any private funds for their campaign.
The running mates can still raise money for the RNC, which can pay for their team’s ground game operations and run advertising on behalf of the ticket.
The RNC, a fundraising powerhouse in its own right, was already becoming competitive with Obama’s operation. The RNC’s cash on hand at the end of August was $75 million.
Palin has injected a new energy in givers, particularly small donors. The day that her selection was announced, the RNC received $1 million in Internet donations — a record for the organization.
“The surge you are seeing in our crowds and in volunteering is matched in our fundraising,” said Alex Conant, an RNC spokesman.
And Palin is expected to be dispatched soon to the fundraising circuit, where her star status could loosen the wallets of both big and small donors, much like Obama has done.
Meanwhile, McCain will have the luxury of spending most of his time with voters.