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Official White House Photo by Pete Souza 

President Obama greets people in El Salvador in March. He was in Chicago on Thursday to kick off his re-election campaign fundraising efforts.

Obama’s $1 billion re-election campaign isn’t farfetched, experts say

by Katie Banks
April 14, 2011

If you’re an American making $30,000 a year, it would take you about 33,333 years to make the $1 billion that Barack Obama is reportedly going to spend on his 2012 re-election campaign.

But is it even realistic for a campaign to raise between now and the 2012 election?

“I don’t know if he will reach it,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that analyzes campaign finance. “But I think the $1 billion number is probably within the ballpark. It’s a testament to where we’ve arrived.”

Other experts agreed that, compared to Obama’s $750 million campaign budget in 2008, $1 billion isn’t that much of a stretch.

“It’s a stunning amount of money,” said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “But what we’ve seen over the past couple of election cycles is that the trajectory only goes upwards.”

Obama set the bar for expensive campaigns in 2008 when he became the first major presidential candidate to refuse general election public financing. This removed the cap on how much money he could raise.

After opting out, Obama was able to rally big and small donors alike by effectively utilizing social media.

“When he ran in ’08, we saw a real master of technology,” Canary said. “He mobilized people through social networks. That was the beginning of a shift in how candidates raise money, with a real emphasis on smaller donors.”

Katie Hogan, an Obama campaign press aide, said Obama has already begun to reap the benefits of this kind of grass-roots organizing in his re-election campaign.

“In the first 24 hours of his [re-election] website being up, supporters made more than 23,000 contributions and 96.9 percent of them were for $200 or less,” Hogan said Wednesday.

With fundraising strategies that have yet to be matched, Canary and others said, Obama could be using the $1 billion figure to psych out the competition.

“It’s a coded statement to all potential challengers that says, ‘My team knows how to fundraise,’” Canary said. “It says, ‘Don’t get into this race unless you want to take on $1 billion.’”

But Kerry Haynie, a Duke University professor and expert on American and racial politics, said a $1 billion campaign could do just the opposite.

“It could set up the president and his campaign as an easy target for criticism,” Haynie said. “To say you can raise $1 billion for something like a campaign -- it’s important, but it’s not as important as all these other problems facing the country. Rather than intimidating the opponent, this could backfire and give the opponents a target to shoot at.”

Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Republican opponents might not use Obama’s inflated campaign budget against him. Instead, they will likely be raising comparable funds.

“I expect whoever is on the Republican side will be well funded,” Redfield said. “I don’t think it is going to be a David and Goliath sort of thing. They will be consistent with the trend.”

Partly to blame for the predicted increase in campaign spending by all candidates is the Supreme Court ruling last year in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, experts said.

The decision made it illegal to limit corporate funding of independent political television advertisements during elections. 

“Since allowing corporate expenditures, we saw a huge jump in spending in the congressional campaigns in 2010,” Redfield said. “So we will definitely see that in 2012. I think people may shake their head at the amount of money that’s being spent but it will be on both sides.” 

What exactly will the public think of this potentially catastrophic fundraising battle?

“With so many problems in the budget deficit,” Haynie said, “it could have the effect of the public saying, ‘Look, if you can spend $1 billion on a political campaign, why isn’t there money for education, or jobs, or Medicare or social security?’ So, in that way it creates some sort of backlash against the incumbent.”

Haynie pointed out, however, that raising money for a political campaign and raising money for policy programs are different.

“This money is not coming from the same place,” Haynie said. “It’s public versus private funds, but the symbolic implications are significant. I’m not sure we’re ready for a $1 billion man in the White House in this particular economic context.”