By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - After Federal Election Commission's filings this month showed Mitt Romney out-raised President Obama by a whopping $35 million in June, Team Obama flooded donors in-boxes with messages that were notable for their dire tone.
"We can win a race in which the other side spends more than we do," Obama wrote in a July 10 fundraising e-mail. "But not this much more."
If Romney and sympathetic super PACs continue to significantly out-raise Obama over the next four months, most of that money will likely be poured into a barrage of advertising in swing states.
But in a campaign in which both sides could spend billions of dollars, some question whether a fundraising advantage is as meaningful as it once was.
"If each side raises the table stakes of $500 million, which certainly appears will happen, after that it's just going to be white noise and a lot of wasted advertising," said Mark McKinnon, a top strategist in George W. Bush's presidential campaigns.
And with the sheer amount of money that both campaigns have at their disposal, voters in battleground states - which are getting a bulk of the advertising attention - are going to become anesthetized to the advertising long before both sides empty their coffers, says Matt Bennett, who served as campaign communications director to Al Gore's 2000 campaign.
The Obama campaign has predicted that Romney and GOP-leaning groups will spend $1.2 billion. The Obama campaign, which won't offer estimates of what it expects to raise in 2012, spent about $750 million in 2008.
More on campaign fundraising
"The question is whether spending $1.2 billion is any different than spending $800 million," Bennett said. "The answer is no, because you reach a saturation point after a certain point."
Mark Mellman, a veteran Democratic strategist, is more circumspect. Mellman said that there's an adage among campaign strategists that 80% of advertising dollars are wasted. But strategists don't know which 80% that is until after they spend it, he said.
"If we're sitting here like we were in 2000, and we find ourselves in a situation where we're saying, 'Geez, 500 votes made the difference in who is president and who is not.' ... There's nobody who can say, 'I know for certain that a 1.5-to-1 or 2-to-1 differential in spending didn't matter' in that difference of 500 votes."
Mellman adds that the advertising market is more fractured than ever, making it more complicated and expensive to reach voters. Long gone are the days where campaigns could make a huge ad buy during the three networks evening news and reach 60% of the electorate, he said.
The Romney campaign believes the fundraising advantage - if it comes to fruition - could give them an important edge in the final days of an election that is expected to be close.
"You don't want to be caught flat-footed and unable to close out a campaign," said Romney pollster Neil Newhouse.