We got a new milestone in the presidential campaign over the weekend when the candidates all filed their quarterly fundraising reports with the Federal Election Commission.
President Obama’s campaign reported the hefty sum of $61 million cash on hand as of September 30, but at this point in the election contest it is one of the few things that’s clear about the race for the White House.
The Republican primaries are in flux and at least four states are moving their contests up to January to try and influence the outcome. Among the GOP candidates only one — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — appears to be solid in both his finances and his poll standing.
At the back of the pack is former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But he said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that “back-in-the-pack” isn’t a permanent condition.
“Nobody’s done in this business. At this stage last time, McCain was in 3rd place,” Gingrich said.
But Gingrich raised less than a million dollars in the third quarter, while Romney raised $14 million. Not to be outdone, Texas Gov. Rick Perry with $17 million.
There’s a question whether Perry’s financial strength is sustainable as he’s fallen in the polls following poor performances in several debates. An NPR analysis found that his fundraising dropped 60 percent the week following the first of those debates in early September.
That same week, Romney’s fundraising went up 50 percent.
The successor to Perry at the top of the polls is businessman Herman Cain. But he finished the quarter with just $1.3 million in the bank. For Romney and Perry, cash on hand was about $15 million each.
“After those two there’s just a very big gap,” says Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute. He says that once you get past Romney and Perry, it is hard to see anyone right now with the financial strength to navigate the tough primary calendar.
“Mr. Cain is riding high in the polls but has got not just a big financial gap, but a big organizational gap,” he says. “Ron Paul is doing very well among small donors, but whether he can translate that into effective votes outside of Iowa and a couple other places we just don’t know yet.”
The Super PAC Factor
Another unknown is the impact of super PACs, a new political animal made possible in part by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts from rich people, corporations and unions.
There are super PACs dedicated to all of the major candidates. While they’re supposed to be independent, each one is run by advisors and former staffers of the candidate.
Despite that wide-open opportunity to raise money, some observers say the super PACs might not be such powerful game-changers.
“Money that’s not spent by the campaign is never going to be spent nearly as efficiently as the campaign is going to want it to be,” says Robert Boatright, a political scientist at Clark University in Massachusetts.
Boatright says a strong candidate probably won’t be drowned out by ads from a rival’s super PAC.
“Say if Perry wanted to do this to Romney and vice versa, they both have enough money that they’d be able to figure out what was happening and counter it,” he says.
But Michael Malbin says the troubling aspect is the lack of disclosure.
Just two of the super PACs – one supporting Romney and one President Obama — have been around long enough to make any significant disclosure of their donors. Those disclosures were in July.
The next reports are due in late January, the same time as the next filings by the candidates’ campaign committees.
Malbin notes that the Republican primary contest could be settled by then.
“So this can be a campaign that begins and ends in the dark,” Malbin says.
That might be good news for the candidates and some of their financial backers.