WASHINGTON (MCT) — If there was one certainty about this year’s presidential campaign, it was that President Barack Obama’s fundraising juggernaut could not be beat.
But the razor-tightness of the 2012 campaign is now evident not only in the polls, but also in the money race, in which GOP challenger Mitt Romney is rapidly gaining on Obama.
In July, Romney and the Republican National Committee outraised Obama and his Democratic allies $101 million to $75 million — the third month in a row that the former Massachusetts governor has beaten the Democratic incumbent. In those months, he brought in $79 million more than Obama.
Obama, who amassed a war chest while Romney was duking it out in a tough primary fight earlier in the year, still has raised more: nearly $627 million, compared with the $535 million raised by Romney and his GOP allies, according to data from the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute and new figures released Monday by the two campaigns.
But as of the end of June, Romney and his party allies had nearly $23 million more on hand than the president’s re-election effort. The Obama campaign has already spent tens of millions on TV ads and a sophisticated ground operation to drive the vote in November.
Since the 2012 race began, Obama campaign officials have privately predicted that he would collect more than the $745 million he raised in his record-setting 2008 campaign, a goal that still appears well within reach. Indeed, at the current pace, his re-election effort will bring in around $850 million.
But it now appears that Romney will also be flush with cash in the fall — a dramatically different scenario than Obama faced four years ago, when he vastly outspent then-GOP presidential nominee John McCain. Unlike Obama, McCain accepted public financing, which capped how much he could spend.
The potential impact of the escalating money race is unclear. With voters already deluged by political ads, additional money pumped into TV spots could see diminishing returns. But a financial advantage could allow Romney to expand his on-the-ground campaign into new states.
Top Obama fundraisers said the campaign is hitting its fundraising goals and will have enough to execute its strategy. They attribute Romney’s recent fundraising advantage to the fact that he was only able to begin raising large donations jointly with the Republican National Committee in the spring, once he became the putative nominee.
“The Republicans have woken up and said, ‘OK, the campaign has started,’” said Ken Solomon, chief executive of the Tennis Channel and co-chairman of Obama’s Southern California fundraising effort.
“Nobody’s pressing the panic button around here,” he added. “This team has faced tough competition in our own primary and election in 2008. While acutely aware of the competition, we are largely running our campaign on our own timeline.”
Still, Obama fundraisers acknowledged that the latest figures show Romney is riding a powerful wave of financial support.
“It’s an indication of the degree to which Wall Street, Oil Cos. and other special interest money want to defeat the President,” Hollywood political consultant Andy Spahn, a member of Obama’s national finance committee, wrote in an email. “We will be competitive, we will raise what we need to win.”
Romney’s campaign sought to stress the small donors who are backing him, saying that 600,627 contributions received in July were under $250, totaling $25.7 million.
“Once again we see that for many people, this is more than a campaign, it is a cause,” Romney Victory National Finance Chairman Spencer Zwick and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a joint statement.
Complicating the equation are vast sums being spent by GOP-allied groups, such as Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, which have already strafed Obama with tens of millions of dollars worth of “issue ads” attacking his agenda. A pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, is stepping up its activity: the group has booked $30 million worth of television time in the fall in six battleground states and has tapped former President Bill Clinton to headline a fundraiser in New York next week. But it is still likely to be outgunned by Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by former Romney aides.
“We know we’re going to be outspent,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One Monday. “That’s a reality.”
Romney will not be able to fully exploit his reserves until the Republican National Convention at the end of this month, when he officially becomes the party’s nominee and is able to use general election funds.
Once that happens, the campaign plans to use some of its treasury to portray a more compelling picture of Romney’s career at Bain Capital — a chapter that senior advisers said they have not been able to adequately address. They also aim to go on offense in states such as Oregon and Minnesota, where they said they have seen a softening in Obama’s support since 2008.
One bright spot for the Obama campaign: its success raising money online from small donors — 201,000 brand-new donors gave in July — which surprised the finance team and helped make up for a lower-than-expected participation by those giving between $1,000 and $5,000, according to campaign fundraisers.
But the re-election effort is also heavily courting donors capable of writing big checks. New events featuring first lady Michelle Obama were recently added, according to a top fundraiser.
On Monday, Obama turned to the entertainment industry again for help, attending a fundraiser in the tony Connecticut town of Westport at the beachfront home of producer Harvey Weinstein. Actress Anne Hathaway and producer Aaron Sorkin were co-hosts of the $35,800-a-ticket soiree.
Meanwhile, the campaign sounded the alarm throughout its fundraising network, blasting out an email warning: “We got beat three months in a row.”
“If we don’t step it up, we’re in trouble,” read the email, which included a graph showing Romney’s widening cash advantage.
Campaign fundraisers said they were confident Obama’s supporters would step up.
“There’s little doubt that when the president says to his constituents, ‘Here’s what we’re going to need to win,’ they will answer,” Solomon said. “They always have.”
(Kathleen Hennessey in Washington, Seema Mehta in Chicago and Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)