President Obama enjoys a frozen dessert at a fundraising event in Philadelphia… (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters )
President Obama has attended twice the number of fundraisers as his predecessor and has made over a dozen more trips to key battleground states this year.
Obama visited battleground states 46 times and attended 58 fundraisers for his reelection campaign since January, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau and Brendan Doherty, an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy. By comparison, President George W. Bush visited battleground states just 30 times and attended 29 fundraisers for his reelection campaign in the first 10 months of 2003.
Obama’s critics have long argued that the “campaigner-in-chief” is focused too much on his reelection effort at the expense of governing. But his supporters say the president is simply adjusting to the realities of a new fundraising world.
“Given that our opponents have the ability to fundraise full time — and that their special interest allies have committed to spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to defeat the President — it is necessary to raise significant resources now to build our organization across the country,” Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, said in an email statement.
He has a point: Republicans have far outpaced Democrats in capitalizing on the relaxing of campaign finance rules that has taken place in recent years. Obama will have to contend next year with hundreds of millions in spending by outside groups like the Karl Rove brainchild American Crossroads, which plans to raise $240 million to help elect Republicans.
But Obama is also partially to blame for this new world order. Like he did in 2008, Obama will forgo the presidential matching funds program, and the limits that come with it.
In 2008, Obama became the first major-party candidate to pass on participating in the Watergate-era program for the general election. Doing so gave him a huge advantage over his GOP opponent, John McCain, who took the matching funds. Obama raised $745 million in 2008, compared with McCain’s $368 million.
By comparison, George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry raised a combined $696 million in the 2004 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush bypassed the matching funds program during the primary, but took the funds in the general. He raised just $367 million, $293 million of it during the primary.
“Obama has a more ambitious fundraising target than George W. Bush did, and that means he needs to raise it in small increments. It just takes a tremendous amount of time to do it,” Doherty said. “It’s a circle of cause and effect. As campaign costs have risen, the result is that presidents spend more and more time raising money.”
Doherty has been tracking presidential campaign activity going back to President Carter. His findings will be published next summer in a book about the rise of presidential fundraising and strategic travel in campaigns.
In comparing Bush's and Obama’s fundraising and campaign activity, Doherty compiled lists of battleground states for the 2004 and 2012 campaigns. Any visit to a battleground state in which the president made a public appearance — including a fundraiser — was counted as a trip to that state. Some days, the president visited multiple states in a single day, meaning one day of travel could count as multiple trips if he appeared in more than one state.
Obama’s frequent travel to battleground states, such as the bus tour he took through the Midwest in Augus, has raised eyebrows for what often appears to be more about garnering support in key states than conducting official presidential business. Like the bus tour, many of Obama’s trips have been billed as “official” travel, which means the cost of a visit is paid by the taxpayers.
Traveling through swing states is a common tactic of incumbent presidents, but the numbers show that Obama has taken it to new levels.
A 2004 analysis by the Brookings Institution shows that Obama is on pace to have made more trips to battleground states in 2011 than did Bush or President Bill Clinton in the years before their reelection campaigns. In all of 2003, Bush made 46 stops in swing states. Clinton made 27 stops in 1995. (Brookings counted each individual stop within a state as a separate visit.)
Since January, Obama has visited Virginia nine times, Pennsylvania six times and Ohio five times.
When a president combines official and campaign travel into one trip, his campaign must reimburse taxpayers for a portion of the cost of the trip. The amount is calculated according to a formula that the White House has not made public. And it’s left to the White House to determine whether a trip – or a portion of a trip – counts as the type of “political” activity that would trigger reimbursement.