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Fierce spending in early stages saps campaigns

The 2008 presidential race long ago shattered all fund-raising records. But lately even the best-financed campaigns are feeling short on cash.
/ Source: The New York Times

The 2008 presidential race long ago shattered all fund-raising records. But lately even the best-financed campaigns are feeling short on cash.

The leading presidential candidates raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on the same ultimately unsuccessful goal: to knock out their opponents with decisive victories in the early nominating contests of Iowa, New Hampshire and, for the Republicans, Michigan.

Together, the top six candidates across both parties are projected to have brought in a total of more than $400 million and burned through at least 80 percent of it.

Now, the top three Democrats and the five or so Republicans all find their bank accounts depleted just as the most expensive phase of the race is about to begin. The candidates are entering a far-flung battle, with more than 20 other states voting in the three weeks that follow regional skirmishes on Saturday in South Carolina and Nevada. Strategists acknowledge they will have to make tough choices, especially since both parties face the prospect of prolonged nomination fights that could extend into the spring — or beyond.

“It is almost like the elections that have been held so far have reset the clock and we are starting the game all over, except that the money has largely been spent and there is no time to replace it,” said Steve McMahon, a veteran operative who worked for the primary campaign of Howard Dean, a Democrat, four years ago. “It is like we have just taken a mulligan.”

Advisers to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois have said their primary campaigns had each raised about $100 million by the end of last year. But both were spending more than $7 million a month in the third quarter, and spent an additional roughly $15 million apiece on television advertising in the early contests. The campaigns will not report their year-end figures until Jan. 31, but Mrs. Clinton’s advisers have said she came out of the New Hampshire primary with about $20 million left, and Mr. Obama appears to be in a similar position.

On the Friday after the primary, the Clinton campaign dispatched the candidate to Los Angeles and sent her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to Washington for dinners with dozens of top fund-raisers, kicking off an effort to pull in an additional $10 million by the end of the month as the race heads toward the coast-to-coast primaries of Feb. 5.

Mr. Obama, in the meantime, sprinted through three California fund-raisers in two days at the end of last week. The events included one on Thursday at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco that attracted about 700 people who paid $1,000 to $2,300 apiece. But with little time for fund-raising, his aides acknowledge, Mr. Obama is spending money faster than he is bringing it in.

Most of the Republicans, who badly trailed the Democrats in fund-raising last year, are even harder-pressed. Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and the biggest fund-raiser among the Republican candidates, brought in more than $60 million last year. But he was burning through more than $4 million a month in the third quarter, had spent about $4.5 million on advertising by the middle of January, and acknowledged last week that he had only $7 million left. A dozen senior staff members gave up their salaries as an emergency measure.

Mitt Romney, a financier with a personal fortune of more than $250 million, is the only Republican whose campaign is not feeling the pinch: he has pumped more than $17 million of his own money into his campaign, and his advisers say he shows no sign of slowing down.

But there are signs of tighter spending by some campaigns. Both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton had been operating two airplanes: one for the candidate and the campaign staff, another for journalists, whose employers eventually reimburse the campaigns. But both decided last week that just one plane would do. Mrs. Clinton boarded the press plane. Mr. Obama’s campaign told journalists to book their own flights. With so many races so soon, Mr. Obama’s advisers said they wanted to free up the cash usually tied up waiting for reimbursements.

“There is definitely some belt-tightening,” Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, acknowledged. “As we move into a broader contest with so many states in play, every penny counts.”

Senator John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina and the third surviving Democrat, is in a bind of his own. Alone among the front-runners in either parties, he elected to accept federal matching funds that impose a spending cap of about $50 million for the entire primary campaign. He spent at a rate of about $2.5 million a month in the third quarter, spent about $7.6 million in television advertising in the early primaries, and now may be limited to spending less than $20 million more while his rivals pour it on.

A person familiar with the Edwards campaign finances said the campaign had raised about $4 million during the fourth quarter, pulled in about $2 million since then, and qualified for a total of about $11 million in matching funds. But in a sign of its limited resources, the campaign did not buy any commercials in Nevada, the Democratic battleground where caucuses were held Saturday, and some Edwards aides are doubling up in hotel rooms to conserve cash.

For some Republicans, though, the cash crunch has its advantages. The campaign of Senator John McCain of Arizona has been almost broke since its near financial meltdown last summer. But Mr. McCain now finds himself on a more level playing field with the other front-runners.

His campaign advisers said he considered accepting the limits of public matching funds — as Mr. Edwards did — but after winning the New Hampshire Republican primary he has brought in enough in contributions to forgo the nearly $6 million in federal money he might have received.

“We’ve weathered the storm that other campaigns are facing right now,” Jill Hazelbaker, a McCain spokeswoman said, arguing that the campaign had emerged from its near-collapse “a more nimble operation.”

Advisers to Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and winner of the Iowa Republican caucuses, said he raised more than $7 million in the fourth quarter and ended the year with about $2 million in the bank — a relatively significant sum for a campaign that had brought in just $2.3 million by the end of the third quarter and had spent at a rate of less than $300,000 a month. “At this point in time, we are all equal — except Romney,” Ed Rollins, the Huckabee campaign national chairman, said last week.

Mr. Romney has by far been the biggest spender in either race. By the end of the third quarter, his campaign had spent $54 million — about $10 million more than any other candidate and about $10 million more than it raised in individual contributions. By mid-January it had also spent about $10 million more on television advertising than any other candidate: $27 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which provided estimates of those expenditures.

To showcase the financial support for his campaign, Mr. Romney recently held a one-day telethon that raised $5 million. But about $3.5 million was contributed for use only in the general election from donors who had already given the maximum $2,300 to his primary campaign, suggesting his support may be more deep than broad.

Still, Kevin Madden, a Romney campaign spokesman, said the candidate was undeterred. “We will have the resources we need to compete all the way through Feb. 5 and beyond,” Mr. Madden said.

On the Democratic side, party strategists said Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama each bring different assets to the next leg of the money race. She has her husband, a master fund-raiser who can pass the hat as she keeps campaigning.

But Mr. Obama has a much more extensive e-mail list of small online donors who have not yet contributed the maximum amount. And the recent endorsement of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee four years ago, has enabled the Obama campaign to solicit Mr. Kerry’s list of three million online donors as well.

As for where to spend their scarce cash, each party presents a different puzzle. Democrats award convention delegates according to the proportion of votes each candidate receives in each state, so campaigns will most likely flock to the coasts and big cities where they can find the most voters.

The Republican contest is more of a gamble. Many states — including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri and Virginia — are winner-take-all, posing big risks for big rewards.

“There is no question that some of the Republican teams are dusting off their delegate-counting operations, pulling those old books off the shelves,” said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who ran Bob Dole’s campaign 12 years ago. “One of them is going to end up in a death match with Romney, because he has the ability to write a check.”

Patrick Healy, Jeff Zeleny and Julie Bosman contributed reporting.