Commentary Magazine


Does the Early Bird Get the Political Worm?

Given the hundreds of millions that both political parties and their presidential candidates have raised this year, it isn’t likely that either side will run out of cash before November. But the latest reports about how the two sides are utilizing their resources have raised an interesting question about campaign strategy. With President Obama’s campaign spending money like it’s going out of style in the spring and summer, it’s clear that despite the expectation earlier in the year that the formidable machine the Democrats have built would have a considerable financial edge, the opposite may be true. As the New York Times reports, Mitt Romney and the Republicans will likely have more money to spend in the fall campaign than their rivals.

The Democrats have spent the last couple of months going all in on nasty personal attacks on Romney that they hope, combined with spending on voter registration and other campaign infrastructure, will pave the way for an Obama victory. That’s a rational strategy but it leaves them open to some second-guessing. They are gambling that their sliming of Romney will sour the public on the GOP candidate will work. But if their charges don’t stick, they will be left to face a still viable rival in September and October who will be able to outspend them on the ground in battleground states.

So far the jury is out on the impact of the Democratic spending spree. The president has to be encouraged by polls showing him holding on to an edge in some swing states but the national polls portray a race that is still deadlocked. Factors that have little to do with the money spent by the campaigns such as the state of the economy or the outcome of the presidential debates will have a greater impact on the outcome than the bottom line of the candidates’ bank accounts. But Obama’s decision to not hold back more of his campaign war chest for the decisive final weeks when he may require some flexibility to respond to a fluid political situation may come back to haunt him.

The Democrats willingness to invest in measures designed to increase their turnout is smart. But it also highlights one of the president’s weaknesses. Unlike in 2008, there is no wave of enthusiasm for his candidacy that will impel unusually large numbers of young or minority voters to vote for him. With the “hope and change” mantra consigned to the history books, the Obama campaign has fallen back on the last resort of all incumbents who can’t run on their records: trashing their opponents. While the Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to suppress voter turnout, it is their own consistently negative approach to the election that is the factor that is turning off the public and making a large turnout unlikely.

In 2008, the president also had a decisive edge in campaign finance that allowed him to swamp John McCain down the homestretch. Due to Romney’s own impressive fundraising that won’t happen this year. And, as it now appears likely, the GOP nominee emerges from the summer without being sunk by the Democrats effort to destroy his reputation he will have a fighting chance to use his money to level the playing field in the final months.

The early bird may sometimes get the political worm. But the problem for the president is that if all of his early spending fails to achieve his goal of hamstringing Romney, he may have set the stage for a Republican comeback.