Hey Buddy, Can You Spare $20 Million?

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Klaidman

The Super Pacs are killing him. Inside Obama's cash crunch.

David Axelrod was feeling upbeat. Over an oatmeal breakfast late last month with an old friend at one of his favorite Chicago haunts, the talk was mostly about family and Axelrod's beloved Bulls. The conversation turned to the campaign. He said he liked the way "the argument was being framed" against Mitt Romney, recalls Chris Sautter, a longtime Democratic strategist, who worked on campaigns with Axelrod in the late '80s and '90s. A few days before, The Washington Post had published an explosive story about how, under Romney's stewardship, Bain Capital had invested in companies that shipped American jobs overseas. It was just what the Obama team needed as it sought to transform Romney's image from a can-do businessman who would turn around the economy into Gordon Gekko, a rapacious capitalist more interested in profits than creating jobs. Armed with stinging soundbites and a raft of ad copy aimed at painting Romney as an avatar of the 1 percent, the president's top political strategist left straight from breakfast to hop a flight to Iowa, where he would join Vice President Joe Biden on the trail.

But by nightfall, a little anxiety had crept in. Axelrod had wandered down to the bar of the Waterloo Ramada Inn to have a drink with one of Biden's top political strategists, Mike Donilon. Peering over Donilon's shoulder at a large TV set, he watched an ominous cascade of attack ads--the vast majority of them aimed at his boss. The torrent--largely funded by super PACs, the newly minted vehicles for unlimited independent spending born of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling--seemed out of season. "Holy smokes! Is this June or mid-October?" Axelrod asked Donilon, astonished by the onslaught this early in the cycle. "The volume of ads was unreal," Axelrod later said in an interview with Newsweek, "and it's only going to get worse."

A lot worse, especially for Democrats, if current fundraising patterns continue as expected. Iowa and about a dozen other battleground states have never experienced a barrage of negative advertising quite like this. Republican super PACs aligned with Romney have raised four times as much money as those supporting Obama, according to a new analysis by The Boston Globe. Some predict that imbalance will grow even further as Election Day looms. Conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson recently gave $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, and in a recent interview with Forbes pledged to spend $100 million to defeat Obama.

Meanwhile, Texas billionaire Harold Simmons and his wife, Annette, have shelled out close to $20 million to a variety of GOP super PACs. No Democrat has played in the same league. DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has come closest with $2.3 million in contributions to two Democratic super PACs. Priorities USA Action, the most significant pro-Obama super PAC, raised $4 million in May, its largest haul so far (and officials there say June will be considerably better). It now has amassed a total of $40 million with $20 million on hand. But Axelrod concedes it seems unlikely that Democrats will close the gap. "One thing I can tell you with utter certainty is that we will be outspent this election," he says.

And the president himself may bear some of the blame.

Barack Obama is widely seen as his team's steady hand, with a preternatural ability to resist the emotional highs and lows of campaigns. Axelrod in the interview said that characteristic reminded him of Michael Jordan, an uncommonly cool athlete under even the most intense pressure. But he is not a natural at the glad-handing rituals of Washington politics. And he doesn't much seem to relish the job of raising money. Listen to some of the leaders of the Democratic Party, and they sound downright incensed over the treatment they receive from their standard-bearer. …