The latest batch of campaign finance reports adds a little clarity to the presidential race. For starters, President Obama's campaign reported a hefty $61 million on hand as of Sept. 30. But in the Republican primary race, things are in flux.
Five states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida — are trying to squeeze their contests into January. They all hope to boost their influence on the outcome.
And among the candidates, only Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, appears to have both the poll numbers and the financial strength to endure such a bruising series of primaries and caucuses.
One candidate back in the pack — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — said on CNN's State of the Union Sunday that back in the pack isn't a permanent condition. "Nobody's done in this business. At this stage last time, [eventual nominee John] McCain was in third place."
But Gingrich raised only $807,962 in the third quarter. Romney raised $14.2 million. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry outraised Romney, with $17.2 million.
Whether Perry's financial clout is sustainable is a question. He has fallen in the polls, following poor performances in several debates.
An NPR analysis of contributions week by week found that his itemized contributions (from donors who have given $200 and more) dropped 60 percent during the week following the first of those debates, Sept. 7. That same week, Romney's itemized contributions went up 50 percent.
NPR also found that Perry has been far more dependent on big donors than have the other candidates. Maxed-out donors — those who gave the legal limit of $2,500 — accounted for 79 percent of Perry's third-quarter dollars. That compares with 54 percent for Romney, 9 percent for Georgia businessman Herman Cain, 7 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and 6 percent for Obama.
Cain knocked Perry and Romney from the top of the polls. But Cain finished the quarter with just $1.3 million in the bank, while Romney reported $14.7 million and Perry claimed $15.1 million.
"After those two there's just a very big gap," says Michael Malbin, director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. He says that beyond Romney and Perry, it's hard to see another candidate with the finances to get through the tough primary calendar.
"Mr. Cain is riding high in the polls but has got not just a big financial gap, but a big organizational gap," Malbin says. "Ron Paul is doing very well among small donors. But whether he can translate that into effective votes outside of Iowa and a couple other places we just don't know yet."
Another unknown is the impact of superPACs.
These new political players, made possible in part by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, are allowed to raise unlimited contributions from the wealthy, corporations and unions. There are superPACs dedicated to all of the major candidates. They're supposed to be independent of the candidate's own campaign committee, but each one is run by advisers and former staffers of the candidate it's supporting.
It's hardly a sure thing that the superPACs will turn out to be powerful game-changers.
"Money that's not spent by the campaign is never going to be spent nearly as efficiently as the campaign is going to want it to be," says Robert Boatright, a political scientist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
One common theory is that a candidate's superPAC, using unregulated money, could drown out a rival's message. Boatright says he's skeptical: "Say if Perry wanted to do this to Romney and vice versa, they both have enough money that they'd be able to figure out what was happening and counter it."
But Malbin says the troubling aspect is the lack of disclosure.
Just two of the superPACs, those supporting Romney and President Obama, have been around long enough to make any significant disclosure of their donors.
Those reports were filed in July. The next reports on superPAC donors are due in late January — about the same time as the next filings by the candidates' campaign committees.
By that time, Malbin notes, the Republican primary contest could be over, "so this can be a campaign that begins and ends in the dark."
That may be good news for the candidates, and for some of their financial backers.
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