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Morning Jay: Why Is Obama’s Fundraising So Weak?

6:00 AM, Aug 22, 2012 • By JAY COST
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Earlier this week, we received final fundraising totals for the month of July – and the numbers were quite a shocker. The Republican side of the campaign (a joint effort between Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee) raised a total of $101.3 million dollars, and has $185.9 million in the bank. Meanwhile, the joint effort of President Obama and the Democratic National Committee raised $75 million and has $95.8 million in the bank.

obama, afghanistan

Given this president’s amazing success in fundraising in 2008, I have to wonder: why can’t Barack Obama compete with Mitt Romney in the money race?

It is hard to give a definitive answer to this question because the decision to donate or abstain is a private matter. We only have access to the actual amounts donated. Still, we can make some reasonable guesses about why this president is having such a problem.

The Democratic party is a very peculiar political coalition. On one side of it is the left wing, which thirsts for fundamental reforms of the status quo. Think of college professors, environmentalists, feminists, and so on. These groups are often aligned with ethnic and racial minorities – who do not give much money but make up about 40 percent of the party’s total vote – as well as the left wing labor unions like the Service Employees International Union. All of these groups want big changes in the way the country is run.

But there is another partner in the Democratic party (which, by the way, I discuss in chapters 11 and 12 of my new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic). These are big businesses, lobbying firms, and other well-heeled interests that actually have a stake in the status quo. Since the 1980s, Democrats have hauled in hundreds of millions of dollars from these groups – which half a century ago would have been natural allies of the GOP – by supplying access, especially through the channels of the committee system in Congress.

In 2008, Barack Obama managed to balance this unwieldy equation. So, for instance, he pulled in $26 million in contributions from the financial sector, and he also wooed the SEIU into chipping in $36 million in independent expenditures alone.

After 3 ½ years in office, however, Obama seems to have aggravated both flanks to some degree. Sure, the core Democratic coalition is still offering the 90 percent support he absolutely needs for reelection, but the most recent Rasmussen poll finds that only 46 percent of Democrats “strongly” approve of the president’s job approval, and only 49 percent of liberals strongly approve. This is undoubtedly due to a variety of factors, not least of which is the persistent economic downturn. But still, recall the frustration of the left with the health care bill as well as the financial reform bill. They thought – and rightly so – that the president and his congressional allies were making too many compromises with the opposite end of the party, the “corporate Democrats,” if you will.

An even bigger problem for the president is how the business community writ large seems to have backed off its support. This goes above all for the major financial institutions, which again are mostly interested in getting the best deal they can. After years of demagoguery designed to reassure the left wing of the party, the banks have soured on Obama, and seem to have realized that they can get a better deal from Mitt Romney.

In other words, Obama is shedding donors on his left and his "right." And the end result is a campaign war chest that looks to be a fraction of what the total Republican campaign (from Romney to the RNC to super PACs) will bring to the table this fall.

We can quantify this a little bit. The following chart looks at Obama’s 2012 fundraising hauls among key industries as a fraction of his total 2008 return. Obviously, we still have three months to go until Election Day, so it is far too early to expect these groups to have matched their 2008 levels. However, we can look at where each group stands relative to the average, which is about 32 percent.

This supports the theory that Obama is suffering donor fatigue on both his left and right flanks. The “worst” donors so far are securities and investment firms, real estate outfits, and liberal interest groups.

We can get at this from another angle as well. The next chart examines Obama’s top 20 donors by company in 2008 to see what they are doing in 2012: are they still among his top 20 donors, or have they dropped out of the mix? The results are intriguing.

Clearly, Obama is suffering a major problem with the big financial institutions, which gave overwhelmingly to his campaign in 2008. This time around, they are holding back; in fact, Citigroup, G.E., JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley are all among Mitt Romney’s top donors. That furthers the idea that these companies are not giving for ideological reasons, but for the purpose of access – and they have intuited that the GOP will offer them a better deal moving forward. (Incidentally, this points to tensions in a potential Romney administration, which will have to balance these groups against the decidedly Jeffersonian Tea Party.)

The bottom line: These trends are likely to continue through the next 3 months. Thus, by Election Day it is probable that Mitt Romney and the broader GOP campaign will have spent substantially more than this president during the fall leg of the campaign.

Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.

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