Will Barack Obama be outraised by Mitt Romney?

Who will raise the most money this election season?
Who will raise the most money this election season?

In 2008, Barack Obama’s $745 million haul shattered fundraising records as he doubled the haul of his Republican opponent Sen. John McCain.

But in 2012, it’s the Democratic team that is crying poverty.

Here’s how Obama put it in a June 26 fundraising email:  "I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far. I'm not just talking about the super PACs and anonymous outside groups -- I'm talking about the Romney campaign itself. Those outside groups just add even more to the underlying problem."

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a member of Congress from South Florida, sent out a similar fundraising email June 30: "President Obama will most likely be the first president in modern history to be outraised in his re-election campaign."

We looked into whether it's likely Obama’s side will be outraised by Romney’s side, but we found the evidence inconclusive.

Why? Because tracking the campaign dollars is no easy task, and what could happen between now and November in unclear.

In this article, we will share what we learned about the presidential candidates’ fundraising. In a separate fact-check, we’ll look at one piece  of Obama’s claim --  whether he would be "the first president in modern history" to be outraised. We rated that statement Mostly False. If Obama’s prediction is correct and he is outraised, he wouldn’t be the first.

For fundraising totals and analysis, we turned to three nonpartisan centers that analyze campaign spending: the Center for Responsive Politics, the Sunlight Foundation and the Campaign Finance Institute.

We also looked at reports directly from the Federal Election Commission, and we contacted the Obama and Romney campaigns, as well as the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee.

We will focus on totals through May, because Obama and Wasserman Schultz made their comments part way through June.

Counting the money

First, we wanted to compare different fundraising sources for each side in handy chart. But determining what to include in our chart was no simple task.

For example, we could include a long list of independent expenditures in support and opposition to Obama and Romney, though that gets tricky. In Romney’s case, some of that fundraising occurred when he was competing against other Republican contenders.

Here’s our tally of known, significant fundraising through May, including the largest PAC on each side, based on information from the Campaign Finance Institute.

  Obama/Democrats Romney/Republicans
Campaign $269 million $122 million
Party committees $205.1 million $171.9 million
Priorities Action USA PAC $14.6 million ---
Restore Our Future PAC --- $61.5 million
Other* -- $33.1 million
Preliminary totals $488.7 million $388.5 million
*Other includes a joint fundraising committee that disburses funds to both the campaign and the national committees. Obama’s committee has already disbursed its funds; Romney’s committee has money remaining to be disbursed.

Our chart shows Obama about $100.2 million ahead. (The Sunlight Foundation or the Center for Responsive Politics reached similar conclusions. The  Sunlight Foundation found that Obama and his affiliated groups have raised $552.5 million, compared to Romney’s $394.9 million. These figures include campaign committees, party committees, joint fundraising committees and, on Obama’s side, the Swing State Victory Fund.)

Major caveats

So why the claims from Obama and Democrats that they are going to be outspent by Romney and the GOP? There are a few main reasons:

Donations to the GOP started to soar this spring: Once Romney was clearly the Republican nominee, donations for Romney poured in. In May, Romney and the RNC outraised the Democratic side by more than $16 million -- the first month the Republicans bested the Democrats. That’s why Democrats’ claims about possibly being outspent followed in June.

"The question going forward is whether that surge was really just a one-time phenomenon as the nominee became known, or whether the new Republican effort can be sustained at these very high levels," wrote Bob Biersack, a former FEC official who now works for the Center for Responsive Politics, in an analysis of the reports released through May.

The trend continued for June: The Republicans joint fundraising efforts totaled about $106 million while the Democrats brought in about $71 million.

But whether that pace continues every month is an unknown.

Predictions about Super PAC and outside group spending: The biggest mystery is how much outside groups, including super PACs, will spend. POLITICO has reported that conservative groups hope to raise $1 billion, including $400 million from organizations affiliated with the wealthy Koch brothers and $300 million for Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. We’ll note that these are vows about fundraising -- not actual totals.

Indications so far show that GOP-friendly groups could certainly raise more than groups supporting Democrats.

Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney, was way ahead of its counterpart for Obama, Priorities Action  USA, at  the end of May. That trend continued in June: Restore Our Future raised an additional $20 million in June, the Washington Post’s The Fix blog reported. On Obama’s side, Priorities Action USA only raised about $6 million.

"Even if the Obama campaign and the DNC outpace Romney, the GOP super PACs and nonprofit groups have a substantial leg up on the Democrats by most people’s estimation," said Brendan Glavin, data manager for the Campaign Finance Institute.

Despite the predictions about what super PACs may spend, if they conclude Romney isn’t close enough in the polls, they will direct their money to Senate races instead, said Bill Allison, director of the Sunlight Foundation via email. (He notes that some of that money has been spent in races where Republicans are fighting each other.)

Looking at money that had been spent rather than what had been raised, the Sunlight Foundation shows that outside groups have spent more to oppose Romney than Obama. That included conservative attacks on Romney during the primary. It was GOP donors that paid for the first effective Bain Capital attack ads that now benefit Obama, Allison said.

"Romney doesn't really control the money the outside groups have amassed, and those who do control it aren't all Romney enthusiasts. And even if they are, they're still no substitute for a candidate with money," Allison said.

Obama’s advantage in campaign cash wasn’t highlighted in recent media reports, but it remains important, he said.

A final point: Any amounts that right-leaning groups have said they will spend must be balanced by what left-leaning groups, including unions, plan to spend on get-out-the-vote, advertising and other campaign-related expenses.

Our conclusion

In looking at the evidence, we see things that both support and contradict the Democrats’ predictions of being outspent. How much money outside spending groups on Romney’s side  will actually raise is the biggest unknown.

But the Obama campaign isn’t without its arsenal of cash, either. A particular point of strength is that the Obama campaign itself controls its money, a strategic advantage.

For fundraising totals through May, "Romney is still badly outgunned by Obama when it comes to the total amount of money he's raised, fundraising appeals by Democrats to the contrary," Allison said in an email.

It’s too soon to determine if the Democrats’ predictions will come true. For now, the rhetoric is a tactic to portray the Democrats as the underdog.

"Predictions about campaign fundraising have always been a slippery slope, used to the benefit of whomever you're talking to," Biersack said. "Sometimes fundraisers will make big claims that come up short, or opponents will make big predictions in an effort to scare their opposition. It seems pretty clear, though, based on money already raised by the campaigns, parties and outside groups, that neither of these campaigns will be underfunded."