A Romney fundraising advantage could rewrite the electoral map.
News that Mitt Romney outraised Barack Obama by $35 million in June now makes it two months in a row that he has outraised the president. At the moment, Obama still has an advantage when it comes to cash on hand, but the president’s campaign also has a much higher burn rate.
If Romney continues to outraise Obama, at some point he will take the cash-on-hand lead, and that could make this contest look very different than the past few presidential elections.
For a long time, Republicans, as the party of big business, were able to outraise Democrats in national political contests. While some wealthy Democrats could outspend Republicans, in most 20th century elections Republican candidates were better funded. However, this dominance was broken by Bill Clinton. As a more business-friendly Democrat, he made inroads with corporate dollars and the finance industry and benefitted from the increased fundraising importance of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
Democrats have had the financial advantage in every presidential election for the past 20 years. Clinton amassed such a war chest that Bob Dole never really had a chance in 1996. In 2004, Democratic forces were actually able to outspend President George W. Bush by more than $100 million. Four years ago, Obama outspent John McCain by a 2-to-1 margin.
That the Republican Party hasn’t earned 51 percent of the popular vote since 1988 has a lot to do with this fundraising disadvantage. You could even say that the Republican Party has been damaged by not even contesting most of the highest populated states north of the Mason-Dixon line, which weakens its ability to build a consensus for its policies even when it wins. George W. Bush was elected twice over the wishes of the voters in the biggest metro areas outside of the Sun Belt, and not receiving buy-in from whole regions of the country limited his political effectiveness.
Money in politics is much like stockpiles of nuclear weapons; the actual number isn’t important, what’s important is having more than the competition. During the Cold War, superiority in nuclear weapons meant that the US or the USSR could add new regions to their sphere of influence. In a similar way, having more money means a candidate can tilt the electoral map more in their favor.
In 2008, Obama took advantage of his outsized money advantage and decided to play in states that had gone Republican for as long as most could remember. He didn’t just contest Republican-leaning swing states like Virginia or Ohio but also “reaches” like North Carolina, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Georgia, and Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District.
This reaped two different advantages for Obama. The first was that some of the gambles paid off. North Carolina went Democratic for the first time since 1976, and he won Indiana—a state that Bush had won by 20 points four years earlier. But the other upside was that, even when he didn’t win a reach state, he pushed McCain further back on the defensive—forcing him to defend more of the map. Obama didn’t win in Montana, but that spending checked efforts from McCain to invest more in a state like Michigan.
Though Romney will not have as significant an advantage as Obama had in 2008, he can use whatever edge he has to reenact the same strategy in reverse. Republican presidential strategy has been narrow and fragile for a generation. There have been very few alternate paths to reaching 270 electoral votes so that, if Florida or Ohio falls to Democrats, there’s almost no way a Republican can win.
But this “blue wall” that Democrats have assembled has been defended with more-than-sufficient money. If Romney is the first Republican presidential candidate since 1988 with a money advantage, then Republicans can be active in states they haven’t won since then. And that could produce a different winning coalition than Republicans have had in some time.
Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.
A version of this post was also published on Campaign and Election’s blog, Campaign Insider.