Washington President Barack Obama hauled in more than $68 million for his campaign and the Democratic Party during the final three months of 2011, a show of force that allows him to compete — for now at least — in the new reality of freewheeling outside political groups.
The latest infusion of money, announced Thursday, adds up to more than $220 million in 2011 for the president's re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, putting Obama far ahead of other Republican presidential candidates. In most years, it might amount to a substantial fundraising advantage, but a flurry of super PACs and big-dollar independent groups have changed the rules of campaign money.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a video to supporters that they collected more than $42 million for the quarter, with the DNC bringing in more than $24 million, along with $1 million for a joint fund to help state parties in key states. That beat an internal goal of $60 million combined for the quarter.
It came a day after the campaign of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney said it had raised $56 million for the primary through Dec. 31, including $24 million during the final three months of 2011.
Yet, even with the current money advantage over Romney and the rest of the GOP field, Democrats are hoping to remain competitive with Republicans because of the dominance of outside groups.
GOP-supportive super PACs have raised tens of millions of dollars this primary season, notably the Romney-leaning Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, which has said it plans to raise more than $200 million this election cycle. American Crossroads has ties to Karl Rove, a former political adviser to President George W. Bush,
Later this month, the outside groups are expected to disclose how much they have collected during the past six months, figures that will shed more light on their influence.
"We face some daunting odds ... to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars," said Vice President Joe Biden, in a primary night address to New Hampshire Democrats. "These guys have these super PACs now on the Republican side that will spend hundreds of millions of dollars in attack ads. We're not going to have those hundreds of millions of dollars in super PACs."
Republicans counter that Obama is more concerned with his re-election campaign than with his job of running the country, pointing to his fundraising edge on the GOP field. Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said "the White House may try to pretend the president isn't focused on his re-election, but Americans know he's more interested in campaigning to save his own job than creating jobs for our country's unemployed."
The president's campaign has watched with concern as the outside groups have escalated a race for political money and roiled the Republican primary season, most notably the campaign of Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker built a lead in Iowa only to watch it erode under a $3 million tidal wave of negative ads launched by the outside group supporting Romney, who eventually won a razor-thin victory in the leadoff caucuses. Gingrich finished fourth.
Restore Our Future has reserved $2.3 million in air time in South Carolina ahead of the states' primaries, while a pro-Gingrich group, Winning Our Future, has said it plans to spend $3.4 million on ads attacking Romney for jobs lost while he served as a top executive at private equity firm Bain Capital. Winning Our Future's effort was bankrolled by casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million to the pro-Gingrich super PAC. Outside groups backing Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have also exerted influence.
Crossroads, for its part, says it is largely holding off ads until the general election, to counterbalance the anticipated flood of money from donors to Obama and the DNC.
Democratic-leaning groups like Priorities USA Action, founded by former Obama advisers, have not spent nearly the same amount as their GOP counterparts. Through late July, Priorities USA Action and sister organization Priorities USA had raised more than $5 million and has spent roughly $320,000 on ads and media-production costs opposing Romney, federal filings show.
David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's senior strategist, said the emergence of the super PACs represented a "concerning dynamic" for Democrats, likening it to facing "the secret air force and have them carpet bomb relentlessly."
"The prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars of negative ads raining down on us is not a prospect that I relish," Axelrod said in a conference call with reporters last week. But he said Obama was "thoroughly known to the American people," making him less susceptible to negative attacks.
With the prospect of a deluge of money opposing the president, Obama's campaign has tried to bat away suggestions that it will raise more than $1 billion, a substantial boost from the $750 million it raised in 2008. Messina said in the video that the lofty figures have created "a challenge that keeps coming up. Too many Obama supporters think we don't need their money or they don't need to give now."
"The billion-dollar number is completely untrue," Messina said.
Obama's campaign has emphasized a large number of donors and small donations generated from online giving. Messina said the campaign and DNC had generated 1.3 million donors, with 583,000 people giving during the most recent quarter. More than 98 percent were for donations of $250 or less and the average donation was $55, he said.
The money will help build Obama's organization, pay for a massive advertising campaign and let his advisers prepare for the upcoming campaign, a point the president emphasized at a large Chicago fundraiser on Wednesday night.
"If you're willing to work even harder in this election than you did in that last election, I promise you change will come," Obama said. "If you stick with me, we're going to finish what we started in 2008."
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.