Two days from the presidential election, here’s where we stand: tight in the popular vote, but with a small but consistent Obama lead in the bulk of the battleground states. Both campaigns are spending big money on TV ads, and Obama’s grassroots turnout operation is about to go into full gear.
Plenty of factors shaped the race and put us where we are now: the economy, the debates, the conventions and even the weather. But one fundamental fact has driven the campaigns’ tactics and strategy behind the scenes, in Obama’s case from the beginning of the race: Obama built a base of small-dollar online donors, and Romney didn’t. Obama’s lead in the battleground states? The relative equality of the ad war? Obama’s turnout machine? All dynamics driven by the Obama campaign’s ability to tap small donors again and again — and Romney’s lack of the same. Let’s see how we got here.
Remember June and July, after Romney survived the primaries and Republican donors’ wallets opened up for him? Money poured into the Republican’s bank account and Democrats trembled to think of the ad barrage it would fund. One tiny example: in a typical left-wing fundraising email from that period (subject line: “We’re getting beat”), MoveOn begged supporters to give money in part because “Romney’s just out raised President Obama for the third straight month.” Likewise, Citizens United and related court cases were supposed to allow “independent” conservative groups to pummel Democrats into insensibility with a wave of political ads unlike anything ever seen.
Anyone living in a battleground state (or one with a competitive Senate race) will attest that the predicted ad deluge hit — to the benefit of local TV stations and to harm of anyone with taste, style and operational brain cells. But the ads mostly seem a wash, with the Left largely matching the Right in numbers of spots run (though targeted Congressional races may be a different story). One set of presidential-level TV ads DO seem to have made a difference, though: the wave of Obama spots that sought to define Romney as a job-destroying, out of touch corporate raider in the summer. As they were on the air, observers pointed to them as already swinging battleground polls in the President’s direction; even now, they seem to have helped create a “firewall” against a late Romney surge.