One candidate could spend almost $1-billion in what is poised to become the most expensive U.S. presidential race ever.
Contrary to expectations, it might not be Barack Obama.
With fundraising figures for June set to be released in coming days, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and the President are vying for the bragging rights that come with amassing the most money. The cash is nice. But the perception can be even nicer.
Money is thought to equal momentum. Mr. Obama proved that in 2008 by assembling the most formidable fundraising apparatus in U.S. political history. As the dollars poured in, mostly in small online donations, it had a bandwagon effect, encouraging further donations.
This year, however, is turning out very differently. Mr. Romney and the Republican National Committee took in 30 per cent more in May than Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee. The GOP's June figure is expected to hit $100-million.
Combined with the colossal amounts raised by so-called Super PACs supporting the GOP, Mr. Romney and his allies are now likely to outspend the Democratic side this year, something considered unimaginable not so long ago.
Mr. Obama started out the race with much more money than his rival, as a cash-sucking primary race sapped Mr. Romney's war chest. But the tables appear to be turning fast.
An ex-businessman, Mr. Romney enjoys the old-fashioned, labour-intensive kind of fundraising. While 93 per cent of the money raised by Mr. Romney in May came from donations under $250, those who contribute the big bucks are smothered with affection.
Late last month, the Romney campaign treated donors who gave more than $50,000 personally, or raised more than $100,000 from others, to a weekend of cocktails and seminars at an exclusive Utah resort. The donors got extensive access to Mr. Romney himself, as well as to a host of GOP celebrities including Condoleezza Rice and Jeb Bush.
Mr. Obama also slaps the backs, at least perfunctorily, of his wealthy donors. He has held a record number of high-price fundraisers for an incumbent president, including a $40,000-a-ticket June event at the Manhattan home of Sarah Jessica Parker.
But many who have given to Mr. Obama have complained of not being loved back.
Wall Street types top that list. After overwhelmingly backing Mr. Obama over Republican John McCain in 2008, donors who work in the financial services industry are lining up squarely behind Mr. Romney this time. Mr. Obama's Wall Street reforms and repeated attacks on bankers for causing the 2008 financial meltdown have taken their toll.
On Friday, the President made a concerted plea to selected donors during a conference call from Air Force One. The Daily Beast, which obtained a recording of the call from an Obama donor, reported that the President asked them to give even more than in 2008.
"Because we're going to have to deal with these Super PACs in a serious way," he said. "The special interests that are financing my opponent's campaign are just going to consolidate themselves. They're going to run Congress and the White House."
The call followed a June 26 fundraising e-mail sent by Mr. Obama to his supporters with the ominous subject line: "I will be outspent.
"I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far," Mr. Obama said in the e-mail.
A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling freed wealthy individuals to contribute without limit to Super PACs, newfangled spending vehicles that have changed the campaign game. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson – who contributed $10-million in June to a Super PAC backing Mr. Romney – has said he could spend $100-million to defeat Mr. Obama.
The Super PACs have taken financial pressure off Mr. Romney's campaign, allowing it to conserve cash for an expected post-Labour Day spending splurge. That was evident in June, when about 75 per cent of the $49-million in television advertising conducted on Mr. Romney's behalf was paid for by Super PACs – even though, by law, such entities are forbidden from co-ordinating their activities with the candidate they support.
In contrast, Mr. Obama's campaign is spending more of its own money. In June, it was responsible for about 80 per cent of the $43.5-million in TV ads run on his behalf.
The Obama campaign appears to have spent more effectively last month. Polls suggest its negative ad campaign against Mr. Romney, accusing him of shifting jobs overseas when he ran Bain Capital, boosted the President's support in critical swing states last month. But the impact could be ephemeral. Mr. Obama is about to face an avalanche of negative ads against him that will make past campaign expenditures look like chicken feed.