NEW YORK -- In the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which dramatically altered campaign fundraising, the saving grace for national Democrats has been President Barack Obama's robust grassroots fundraising base.
The theory went something like this: While conservative super PACs would have their corporate and billionaire donors, the Obama campaign would be fed by a steady stream of support from a 13 million-member email list.
On Thursday, that theory took a sizeable hit. Mitt Romney's campaign announced that it and allied campaign committees had raised $76.7 million in May alone. That was about $17 million more than the president's campaign raised during the same time period. Sen. John McCain never once outraised Obama during the 2008 election. In fact, the last time the president was bested by an opponent on fundraising was when Hillary Clinton's campaign brought in $26.7 million to his $22.8 million during the fourth quarter of 2007.
Romney's May fundraising win was, in political terms, a punch in the gut leaving Democrats who thought that their presidential candidate could close the super PAC gap in momentary panic.
"It is a big wake up call," said a concerned top Democratic operative, echoing what many others in the party's top ranks felt but were afraid to say on record for fear of coming off as panicked worriers.
The Obama campaign acknowledged being trumped at its own craft. Jim Messina, the campaign manager, sent out an email to supporters with the opening line: "for the first time in this campaign, we got beat in fundraising." Ben LaBolt, the press secretary, responded to a reporter's question on a conference call by insisting that he and others "knew this day would come." He added that the numbers, combined with the explosion of super PAC money, "should serve as a clarion call to our supporters and our donors to give now and give again."
What additional resonance that clarion call will have is uncertain. The Obama campaign has been warning donors for months about the deficit Democrats will face in the super PAC matchup. Donations have increased only marginally.
And while the president's supporters may be motivated to write larger checks in light of their candidate being outraised, it's unclear how much more can be done to increase the pace of giving. Obama's May total was buffeted by a $15 million fundraiser his campaign held with George Clooney -- an historic event that will be hard to duplicate (those donors maxed out). As the election draws closer, the fundraising hauls will grow larger. May's result shows they will have to grow larger at a quicker rate.
In more resigned terms than usual, Democratic operatives were left discussing the impending money-raising defeat.
"You don't have to be a political scientist to know that money made a big difference in Wisconsin and may well have a big impact this November," said Bill Burton, the founder of Priorities USA, the super PAC allied with the president. "With oil billionaires and Wall Street executives believing they can have an impact on the outcome of the election, I have no doubt they are going to keep giving money hand over fist to make sure that Mitt Romney is elected."
Added Mark Penn, the longtime Democratic strategist who, as Hillary Clinton's '08 campaign chief, had an up-close view of Obama's money-raising capacity: "It's the economic numbers that are more important than the fundraising numbers. But clearly this won't be one sided with an incumbent president outraising a challenger anymore."
For Democrats, there is relief-inducing historical context. As Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, noted in an interview on CNN, Sen. John Kerry, "once he sealed the nomination, had two months where he outraised President Bush." Romney in May was coming off of winning the nomination and had his first chance to tap a new pool of donors (as well those who maxed out during the primary, but could give again for his general election). May offered up the fundraising equivalent of low-hanging fruit.
Moreover, a good chunk of Romney's haul was going to a Victory Fund, which can accept contributions of up to $75,000, but has to split that money between the presidential campaign, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Vermont Republican Federal Elections Committee, the Idaho Republican Party and the Oklahoma Leadership Council. (Obama's Victory Fund, a DNC official confirmed, is shared only by the president's campaign and the DNC.)
Romney's Victory Fund, in short, allows his campaign to show off impressive fundraising totals, even though its spending capacity is more limited. Only $35,800 of the maximum $75,000 contribution can go to the Romney campaign and the RNC, leaving $39,200 of a donor's maximum contribution to be divvied up between political committees that will never spend money on the presidential race.
Those restrictions take away a bit of the glamour from Romney's May megahaul. But even then, top Democrats weren't feeling bullish with respect to the fundraising race. "I think the Chicago team has assumed they would be outspent for some time now," said one adviser who works closely with the campaign.
The aide added that the significance of the non-money events -– whether debates or convention speeches -- only increased in light of the Romney campaign stripping away the Obama campaign's money advantage. Even before the announcement of the May fundraising totals, former DNC Chair and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was making that point.
"Our guys were moaning and groaning about Citizens United," Rendell said at a discussion at Bloomberg View. "Citizens United sucks. But in the end, by October, people will have turned out all that stuff. They are going to be so bombarded no one is going to be listening in October. And I think the debates are going to determine and the convention speech is going to determine who wins this election."
Paul Blumenthal and Elise Foley contributed.