WASHINGTON -- The Republican presidential primary is heading into the home stretch before voters get to select which of the nine major candidates will get to face President Barack Obama next November. The release of the candidates' third-quarter campaign finance reports on Friday and Saturday helps to illuminate which candidates are overperforming their goals and which ones are going to have issues making it to the end.
The campaign filings also show that, despite challenges facing individual candidates, whether it's raising big money or getting donations from small donors, the Republican side is keeping pace with the campaign of President Obama. Republican primary candidates combined to raise $49 million from July through September. That's $7 million more than the $42 million raised by Obama's re-election committee.
Among the primary candidates, some candidates are separating from the field, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul pulling in substantive hauls of $14 million, $17 million and $8 million, respectively. Pizza mogul Herman Cain, a surprising contender in these late months, raised $2.2 million in the third quarter, more than expected from the once-fringe candidate. Rep. Michele Bachmann, once thought to be a major contender and a successful fundraiser, raised only $3.9 million in the third quarter, a number that should be disappointing to someone known as the best fundraiser in Congress.
The other candidates are going to have a much more difficult time getting their messages out, apart from the televised debates. The campaigns of former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and former Speaker Newt Gingrich are each in debt more than $1 million. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum raised only $700,000 in the third quarter, an amount that would be unimpressive in a Senate election bid.
"The money gives a sense of how competitive a candidate is," Michael Beckel, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions and expenses, told The Huffington Post. "If they don't have enough resources to invest in a campaign in one state -- let alone in four states or more -- a candidate might have momentum or sympathy of the voters, but won't have the ability to cross the finish line due to lack of funds."
A prime example is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the Republican presidential primary as his support failed to climb out of the single digits and contributions dried up. Pawlenty, expected to be a top-tier challenger for the nomination, dropped out after losing the Ames straw poll in Iowa. He exited the race with a campaign debt of $450,000.
For the candidates pulling in enough money to compete, there are other crucial details hidden within the contributions totals. These include the rate at which the campaign is spending money, what they're spending their money on, and the current cash on hand for the campaign. Also, increasingly important is the percentage of contributions coming from small-dollar donors versus the amount raised by donors who are maxing out at the $2,500 contribution limit.
"The people who give the smaller amounts are going to be people you can ask for more money, and you can make them a part of your campaign network and participate in campaign activities to become more involved," Brendan Glavin, data manager for the Campaign Finance Institute, told The Huffington Post. "People who can't give a lot of money may be willing to participate in other ways."
Larry Sabato, president and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, explained how Ross Perot, independent presidential candidate in 1992, viewed the importance of small-dollar donors: "Anybody who gives money to a campaign has skin in the game. Back in the winter and spring of 1992, Perot asked people to send him $5 so they had skin in the game. It's very unusual for a billionaire to ask people to give him money."
Neither of the top fundraisers in the Republican primary have a broad base of support from small donors. Romney raised $1.9 million from donors giving less than $200, 13 percent of his total. Perry raised only $698,820 from small donors, which was 6 percent of his total, the lowest percentage of all the Republican candidates.
"The base just can't seem to buy in," Sabato said.
Ideological candidates are generally more adept at raising money from small-dollar donors. Bachmann, who cultivated a large small-donor base through highly partisan appeals in Congress, leads the way among the Republican candidates, raising 71 percent of her third-quarter contributions from small-dollar donors. The libertarian Paul has tapped a pool of highly active small-dollar donors whose contributions make up half of his third-quarter donations. Cain, who consistently hits conservative hot-button issues, also brought in half of his contributions from small donors.
Money, of course, isn't the deciding factor in elections. While the majority of candidates who raise more than their opponent win election, they still need to have a message attuned to the voters they will court. In the 2010 midterm elections, nearly all of the Democratic incumbents who lost to Republican challengers raised more money than their opponents.
The Campaign Finance Institute's Glavin explained that candidates raising the most money in the 2008 Republican primary did not wind up with the nomination. "If you look at the last election, the top fundraisers were Romney, [Rudy] Giuliani and [Fred] Thompson. [John] McCain was far behind them all. [Mike] Huckabee, he was way way behind; hardly raised any money at all. It's not the end-all, be-all to be out front. You can get your message out, but that doesn't mean that people want to hear what you have to say."
For a candidate like Perry, who has raised $17 million but has floundered in the polls due to poor debate performances and positions that do not align with the right-wing tilt of the Republican primary audience, the effectiveness of money in campaigns will be tested in the coming months.
"If you have a message that isn't popular or isn't selling, you can raise tons of money but it might not matter," Sabato said.
One unknown factor in the race is the role that new fundraising vehicles like super PACs will have on the outcome. Nearly every top candidate in the primary has a super PAC, an independent political committee that can raise and spend unlimited money from corporations, unions and individuals, in an effort to secure the nomination for them. These groups could potentially throw additional tens of millions behind a candidate.
Adam Skaggs, senior counsel to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote in an op-ed in Politico that paying attention to the fundraising by the candidates is missing the forest for trees.
"The new campaign finance numbers that are changing the political playing field are coming from independent groups -- not the campaigns," Skaggs writes. "You can't accurately predict which candidates will succeed in 2012 if you don't account for these stats."
The problem is that super PACs don't have to report their fundraising totals until Jan. 31, after voters have gone to the polls and after the caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.