WASHINGTON -- On Tuesday's deadline, the latest quarterly fundraising reports poured into the Federal Election Commission and out to the public from candidate campaigns and super PACs. Observers could finally compare money totals for the last quarter of 2011 and the full pre-election year.
The flood of cash advanced three story lines: President Barack Obama and the Democrats have broken another fundraising record, the Mitt Romney campaign is far outpacing its competitors, and the relatively new vehicles known as super PACs are a powerful new force in the campaign money race.
Tuesday's fundraising reports marked another banner day for the reelection campaign of Barack Obama. The president's campaign announced that it had combined with the Democratic National Committee to raise $247.7 million in 2011, a biggest haul ever for a president in a non-election year. The previous record, held by President George W. Bush and the Republican National Committee, was $237 million in 2003.
The Obama campaign is repeating a pattern it set in 2008: pulling in major money from both small-dollar donors and big-dollar bundlers. Its 442 bundlers raised at least $72 million for the campaign and the DNC. The campaign added an additional 79 bundlers in the fourth quarter.
Forty-two percent of the campaign's total contributions -- $58 million -- came from donors giving less than $200 each. As the Center for Responsive Politics points out, the president has raised more from small donors than Romney has raised from all donors.
Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney is far and away the top fundraiser in the winnowed GOP primary field. He posted his best quarter of the year as he brought in $24 million from October to December. That brings his total to $56 million for all of 2011.
While Romney is lapping his primary opponents in fundraising, a closer look at his numbers raises one major worry for a candidate facing a long primary slog against Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Romney has not connected with small donors, receiving less than 10 percent of his contributions from donors giving less than $200. Those small donations tend to signal the level of support for a candidate within a party's grassroots base.
Instead, Romney has relied heavily on donors giving the maximum amount. More than 60 percent of his 2011 total comes from supporters who have given $2,500 or more. To compete in a general election against the Obama fundraising machine, he will need to expand his fundraising base.
By contrast, Romney's opponents are underfunded but aided largely by small-dollar donors. Gingrich announced a take of $9 million in the fourth quarter, three times the amount he had raised in the second and third quarters combined. More than half of his fourth-quarter money came from small donors. Santorum reported a mere $900,000 raised in the fourth quarter. But his campaign declared that it has received more than $4 million since his Iowa caucus victory was made official. Paul's fundraising marches along with the candidate bringing in $13 million, for his best quarter yet.
Paul is the second-best Republican fundraiser after Romney, having pulled in $25 million for all of 2011. The majority of his contributions come from small donors giving under $200.
The candidates who dropped out all saw their fundraising dry up in the final months of 2011. Support for Texas Gov. Rick Perry dried up the fastest. After raising $17 million in less than two months after Perry announced his run, his campaign brought in less than $3 million for the final three months of the year.
THE AGE OF MEGA-DONORS
As 2008 was the year of the small donor contacted and engaged over the Internet, 2012 is set to be the year of the mega-donor. Millionaires, billionaires and their corporate entities are lining up to give $250,000 to $1 million, or more, to super PACs created to help their favored candidate or position. With the money that has already flooded into the Republican primary, super PACs have routinely outspent candidate campaigns on television advertising in the early-voting states.
In total, super PACs raised $96 million in 2011. Republican groups dominated the arms race. The top 10 Republican super PACs raised $65.6 million, compared to $20.5 million raised by the top 10 Democratic super PACs.
The most proficient fundraisers were the pro-Romney Restore Our Future and the Karl Rove-linked American Crossroads.
American Crossroads and its sister nonprofit Crossroads GPS announced a fundraising total of $51 million for 2011, of which only $18 million was disclosed by the super PAC American Crossroads. That leaves $33 million in contributions that went to Crossroads GPS, which is not required to disclose the source of its funds. Factor in that $33 million, and the disparity between Republican and Democratic outside groups rises to $98.6 million to $20.5 million.
The Crossroads combo predates the current electoral contest and has interests beyond electing a Republican president. Within the GOP primary race, the shift in power to super PACs began with the emergence of Restore Our Future, which is run by former Romney aides. The group operates in many ways like a party committee supporting a candidate in a general election. It buys negative ads, sends direct mail and runs phone banks to get out the vote. While unions have pursued such activities before in Democratic primaries, no operation run by an independent group at this level of spending has existed in previous primaries.
Restore Our Future announced on Tuesday that it had raised $30 million in 2011. It also said it had more cash on hand -- $23 million -- than the Romney campaign did at the end of the year.
The very wealthy have lined the pockets of Restore Our Future. Some 40 corporations accounted for a total of $5 million donated to the super PAC in the second half of 2011. The leading corporate donor in the last six months of the year was a health product company, Melaleuca, run by Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho-based Mormon businessman. Most of the super PAC's donations came from Romney's go-to donor base, individuals and companies operating in the finance sector, who accounted for at least $16 million in contributions.
Restore Our Future has used that money to pound Romney's opponents with a never-before-seen wave of negative ads. The group spent more than $16 million to bash Gingrich, Romney's top opponent, as an ethically challenged influence peddler who is unsure of his commitment to conservative principles.
Gingrich has a super PAC backing him, which has responded in kind -- albeit at a lower level of funding. Winning Our Future raised $2 million in contributions last year.
The Winning Our Future disclosure may have surprised many as it did not list the man thought to be its top donor. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is said to have given $10 million to the Gingrich super PAC, but that money was donated in January and will not appear in FEC disclosures until February.
Given Gingrich's own less-than-stellar fundraising so far, a supportive super PAC may be more important to him than it is to Romney. The same can be said of Santorum, who has raised very little cash for his campaign but has received the support of two super PACs, one of them funded by the other.
Super PACs backing Obama have largely fizzled on the fundraising front. The leading group, Priorities USA Action, picked up only $4.1 million in 2011. Fundraising may be difficult for these groups in part because Obama and Democrats have spent much time attacking the court decisions, most prominently Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that led to the explosion of outside money and super PACs.
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