President Obama on the fundraising circuit in West Hollywood. His advisors… (Kevork Djansezian, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — His approval ratings are down and the economic recovery is sputtering. But President Obama brings to the 2012 campaign one strategic advantage that previous Democratic presidential candidates would have envied: the money to compete everywhere.
Flush with more cash than all the Republican candidates combined, Obama's reelection campaign envisions an electoral map every bit as expansive as that of 2008, when he picked up a string of states that had been safe GOP territory for decades.
Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia. Obama's national momentum helped him pull off some improbable wins. Even Obama is doubtful he can duplicate his showing given the poor economy. He'll need to "grind it out" in 2012, he said recently.
But along the way, campaign officials say, they are determined to use their financial clout to keep as many states as possible in play for as long as possible.
"Part of our job in 2011 is to expand the map as much as possible and to have as many routes to 270 electoral votes as we can get,'' Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in an interview.
"Democrats for a long time just put all their marbles on a couple of states,'' Messina said. "And that was bad politics, it was bad for the party, and those are days we're never going to go back to."
The war chest will allow Obama not only to spend more money in swing states but also to launch aggressive operations in states that past Democratic candidates, for lack of money, essentially conceded to the Republicans. Even if Obama can't realistically expect to carry a specific state — Georgia may be an example — he can force Republicans to commit money that is needed elsewhere.
So Democrats are opening offices, airing TV ads and building up campaign machinery in the upper South, in Rust Belt Midwestern states and across the Southwest.
"Obama widened the playing field last time because he had such enormous resources," said Bob Shrum, a strategist in Democrat John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "And that's why he'll be able to play on a big playing field this time as well."
In 2008, Obama parlayed a huge fundraising advantage over Republican John McCain into an electoral college landslide. Obama collected $730 million, compared with McCain's $368 million, en route to winning 365 electoral votes — 68% of the total.
Obama should be able to hit his fundraising goals despite the restiveness of some liberal supporters. He is raising money in buckets, packing in half a dozen fundraising trips on quick sprints west. So far, he has collected $89 million, while his nearest competitor — Republican Mitt Romney — has picked up $32 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, the Republicans this time around probably will be able to keep pace. The equalizer for the GOP will be the "super PACs," which are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations and unions. A Supreme Court ruling in January 2010 gave rise to the groups, which are expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to the benefit of both parties.
Karl Rove, former political advisor to Republican President George W. Bush, helped found one such group, American Crossroads. He believes the groups will erode the incumbent's advantage Obama enjoys in fundraising.
"The question is, how big an advantage will he have?" Rove said in an interview.
Rove said Democrats outspent Republicans 2 to 1 in states like Ohio and North Carolina in the last election.
"However, I don't think the disparity will be that big" in 2012, Rove said. "There will be groups like American Crossroads, where our goal is to raise $240 million. So we will close some of that gap."
Each party sees a viable path to the magic number of 270 electoral votes. Obama's advisors cite population trends showing growth of the Democratic-leaning Latino population. In Virginia, for example, the state grew 13% as a whole from 2000 to 2010, but its Latino population nearly doubled.
The Obama campaign also has recruited volunteers and begun to register voters in Arizona, where Latinos have gone from 25% to 30% of the population over the last decade.
"The new census numbers ought to be a good guide that these states are changing," Messina said. "These are not your parents' states any more. And the growth in some of these states is huge, and they create opportunities that have not been there in the past."
Republicans are undaunted. They believe the charismatic Obama who captivated voters in 2008 has morphed into a conventional politician whose base is disillusioned.
"The coalition that elected President Obama in 2008 no longer exists,'' said Steve Schmidt, who ran McCain's campaign.
Can money help rebuild it? Past Democratic presidential campaigns say they were at a major disadvantage because they lacked money on the scale of what Obama has raised. Adjusting for inflation, Obama collected nearly twice what Kerry raised in the 2004 election, and more than four times what Al Gore raised in 2000.
Gore and Kerry had to pick and choose where to compete. In 2004, Kerry was running even with Bush in Colorado but had to pull out because of a lack of money, Shrum said. Kerry lost the state by 5 percentage points.
"We were basically tied in the state, much like we were in much of the nation,'' Shrum said. "You had to make some very hard calls.''