Yesterday John McCain’s campaign conceded the state of Michigan to Barack Obama, pulling out staff and canceling its media buys. No more mail, phones, or radio either. While this allows McCain to redirect resources to states where he has a better chance of winning, it also allows Obama to do the same. McCain may not have had much of a choice, though, as his decision to accept public financing put him at a significant financial disadvantage to the Obama fundraising machine.
Obama caught some serious flack when he decided to become the first presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972 to fund his campaign entirely by private donations. I never bought the bogus explanation for doing so — that Republicans just had too much money. If so, why forgo free money from the government? No, Obama’s campaign opted out of public financing because they knew they could raise and spend more money without it. Or, more poetically, they refused to turn away the millions of people who for the first time in their lives believed enough in what our country could become to open their wallets and make a donation to Barack Obama for President.
So far, Obama’s strategy seems to have worked. According to OpenSecrets.org, Obama has raised more than twice as much as McCain over the course of the Presidential race, which includes the primaries. More telling, though, Obama currently has $77 million cash on hand, while McCain has only $36m — a 2:1 advantage for Obama.
Don’t count McCain out yet, though. The former champion of campaign finance reform has found a few creative ways around the strict restrictions he helped create. From the Washington Post:
[McCain’s website] routes potential donors to a separate page that collects money for the joint committee, distributing money to the RNC, state Republican party accounts, and a compliance fund that pays the McCain campaign’s legal bills. The message on the site says, ‘The best way to help our campaign is to give to McCain-Palin Victory 2008.’
Joint committees are not new. But the way the McCain campaign is using them, in the view of some election lawyers, makes it hard for donors to tell the difference between a contribution to the joint fund and a donation directly to McCain’s campaign.
‘One cute issue lurking within all of this joint fundraising is whether campaigns are getting away with having people basically give to party committees what technically is money earmarked to help a particular candidate,’ said Scott Thomas, a former FEC chairman.
Under FEC rules, Thomas explained, the party cannot tell donors that contributions will be used expressly to help a single candidate. That practice, called earmarking, would circumvent contribution limits and, in this case, the prohibition on McCain raising private money.
While this may seem like a great way around campaign finance laws, TV spots from Victory 2008 can look a little odd since, according to conservative blog The Next Right, “Legally, Victory has to spend half its time talking about Republican candidates, not just McCain.” So Obama’s evil just like Nancy Reid and Harry Pelosi — got that? But “Victory 2008” isn’t the only loophole Republicans have exploited.
McCain also has the power of the RNC behind him, but according to Congressional Quarterly outside groups including national parties and unions have spent more on independent expenditures for Obama ($18.1 million) than McCain ($13.2 million). However, that number doesn’t include harder to track nonprofits and IRS-designated section 527 political committees, whose “issue ads” don’t specifically advocate the election or defeat of a candidate even though we all know that’s exactly what they do.
Overall things look pretty rosy for Obama cash wise and much less so for McCain. But why would McCain pull out of Michigan if doing so just lets Obama redirect his money, too? A few reasons.
First, Detroit has one of the most expensive media markets in the country, and despite outspending Obama the polls consistently showed McCain behind in the Wolverine State. (Although poll tracking website FiveThirtyEight.com makes a compelling argument that Michigan still has a high return on investment because of its electoral votes — I’d argue the return isn’t so good if you lose.)
Secondly, McCain doesn’t need Michigan to win in November. Michigan went for Kerry in 2004, and with Obama’s cash advantage it makes sense to winnow down the battlegrounds in order to really compete in closer races. It’s better to fight well in a few key places than poorly in too many.
Finally, well funded campaigns usually reach a point of diminishing returns, when the message has saturated and voters pretty much know all there is to know about both candidates. By reducing the number of states at play McCain reduces the significance of Obama’s cash advantage.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see McCain pull out of more states in the coming weeks, though not too many — that could look like weakness to voters. Pulling out is always a risky strategy, but cutting the number of competitive states could potentially help McCain focus his resources enough to win in the few that will decide the race in November.
Colorado Independent’s blogumnist (blogger-columnist) Jeff Bridges has worked in Democratic politics for the last 10 years, serving as communications director for two congressional races in Colorado and two governors races in the Deep South. Bridges also worked as a legislative assistant in Washington, D.C., with a focus on military and small-business issues.