Articles

Obama's Money and the Enthusiasm Gap

March 14, 2012

Last July, President Obama's campaign announced that it had raised an average of $29 million in each of the previous three months for itself and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). I was only mildly impressed. After all, that was well below the $50 million a month needed to reach the campaign's goal of a $1 billion war chest for the 2012 race.

Seven months later, I'm even less impressed. Through January, the president has raised an average of $24 million a month for his campaign and the DNC. Next week, the Obama campaign will release its February numbers, but the president is on track to be hundreds of millions of dollars shy of his original goal.

It's not for lack of trying. Mr. Obama has already attended 103 fund-raisers, roughly one every three days since he kicked off his campaign last April (twice his predecessor's pace).

The president faces other fund-raising challenges. For one, there are only so many times any candidate can go to New York or Hollywood or San Francisco for a $1 million fund-raiser. Team Obama is running through its easy money venues quickly.

For another, many of Mr. Obama's 2008 donors are reluctant to give again. The Obama campaign itself reported that fewer than 7% of 2008 donors renewed their support in the first quarter of his re-election campaign. That's about one-quarter to one-third of a typical renewal rate: In the first quarter of the Bush re-election campaign, for example, about 20% of the donors renewed their support.

There are other troubling signs. Team Obama's email appeals don't ask for $10, $15, $25 or $50 donations as they did in 2008, but generally for $3. Nor are the appeals mostly about issues; many are lotteries. Give three bucks and your name will be put in a drawing for a private dinner with the president and first lady.

This is clever marketing, but it suggests the campaign has found that only a low price point with a big benefit can overcome donor resistance among people who contributed via mail or the Internet in 2008. It also points to higher-than-expected solicitation costs and lower-than-expected fund-raising returns.

The final financial challenge facing Mr. Obama's campaign is how fast it is burning through the cash it is raising. Compare the 2012 Obama re-election campaign with the 2004 Bush re-election campaign. Mr. Obama's campaign spent 25% of what it raised in the second quarter of 2011, while Mr. Bush's campaign spent only 9% in the second quarter of 2003. In the third quarter it was 46% for Obama versus 26% for Bush; for the fourth quarter it was 57% versus 40%. In January 2012 the Obama campaign spent 158% of what it raised, while the Bush campaign spent 60% in January 2004.

At the end of January, Team Obama had $91.7 million in cash in its coffers and those of the DNC. At the same point in 2004, the Bush campaign and Republican National Committee had $122 million in cash combined.

The Obama campaign's high burn rate doesn't come from large television buys, phone banks or mail programs that could be immediately stopped. It appears to result instead from huge fixed costs for a big staff and higher-than-expected fund-raising outlays. These are much tougher to unwind or delay. Left unaltered, they generally lead to even more frantic efforts to both raise money and stop other spending.

This perhaps explains why the White House told congressional Democrats last week not to expect a single dime for their campaign efforts from the Democratic National Committee this year. All the DNC's funds will be needed for the president's re-election.

His campaign's financial situation also may explain why Mr. Obama has embraced Super PACs after decrying them as a "threat to democracy" in the midterm elections. The president was quick to criticize Rush Limbaugh's crude comments about contraception advocate Sandra Fluke. But he refused to condemn his Super PAC's acceptance of a million-dollar donation from Bill Maher, who routinely attacks Republican women such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in vulgar and sexually charged terms.

That virtually all Republicans and many independents consider Mr. Obama a failure is obvious. But many Democrats are disappointed with him, too. The president's difficulty in raising campaign cash is evidence of this. He is working a lot harder than he thought he would to raise a lot less than he had hoped.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 15, 2012.

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