Lost amid all the talk about millionaires influencing the 2012 election is a striking fact: The Republican primaries are shaping up as the cheapest and most financially depressed presidential nominating contests in years.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the other Republicans vying to take on President Obama in November have raised and spent about half as much money as the GOP field did four years ago, campaign disclosure data show. The trend doesn’t stop there: Republicans in 2000 and Democrats in 2004 posted stronger financial numbers than this year’s crop of GOP challengers have.
Even adding this year’s spending by super PACs — a new kind of independent group that can raise millions of dollars at a time — the Republican contenders spent more cash in 2008 all on their own.
The numbers, tallied through the end of January, complicate the widespread portrait of the 2012 campaign as an example of political spending run amok. While many voters may feel overrun with negative ads, every primary season since the 1990s has featured more spending than the current contest, records show.
The totals also underscore a persistent enthusiasm problem that has dogged this year’s GOP presidential hopefuls, most of whom haven’t come close to raising as much money as the top candidates did in 2008. Romney, despite being the presumed front-runner, has actually brought in donations at a slightly slower pace than he did four years ago, when he was considered an underdog in a well-funded field that included a veteran U.S. senator and a former New York mayor.
Even Obama, who does not have to fight a primary opponent, has begun to lag behind the pace he set in 2008, when he became the most successful fundraiser in U.S. political history.
Strategists, fundraisers and campaign-finance experts offer a variety of explanations for the tepid fundraising, including a weak economy that has strained donors’ bank accounts and, on the Republican side, a more extended primary season. But most agree that the biggest reason appears to be a lack of excitement among Republican donors at all income levels, many of whom have remained on the sidelines as the GOP primary battle drags on.
“The most important factor has just been the weakness of the Republican field,” said Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “You did not have candidates run that were well-known, with well-established bases of financial support. . . . Even with the super PACs, this is not a race where you’ve seen record amounts of money being spent.”
Surge still expected
Few expect the fundraising drought to last into the general-election campaign, which still appears likely to rank among the most expensive ever. Once the Republican nominee is chosen, most strategists predict, party donors will quickly rally around the candidate and produce a surge of money to go up against the Obama campaign. The surge will be augmented by money from super PACs and other outside groups, which will have an easier time raising money than they did in previous election cycles.
Even then, however, the slow primary fundraising — and the high spending necessary to keep fighting for the nomination — will present Republicans with a steep financial hill to climb. Obama reported having $76 million in cash on hand at the end of January, not counting tens of millions more being stockpiled by the Democratic National Committee.
“Mitt Romney is gaining people’s respect, but not their passion and not their love,” said Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute, which studies donors and contribution patterns in political races. “It will have to be a passion against the president rather than for the candidate that brings the numbers up.”
In 2008, the combined Republican field — led by Romney, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — had raised nearly $310 million and spent $278 million of that through the early January contests, according to data from Malbin’s research. The figures include $42 million in money that Romney poured into the race from his personal bank account.
Those numbers have been halved in 2012, with $146 million raised and $133 million spent by GOP presidential candidates through Jan. 31, the data show. Romney has not contributed his own money this time around.
This year’s crop of hopefuls does have a new financial weapon in the form of super PACs, which are technically separate from the campaigns but can raise unlimited amounts of money on their behalf. The groups have had an inordinate influence on the primary race by dominating ad spending in many of the early primary states and helping to keep such long-shot contenders as Newt Gingrich in the game.
Nonetheless, even the monied super PACs haven’t closed the gap in spending compared with 2008. The top six GOP super PACs spent about $37 million on behalf of their favored presidential candidates through January, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Super PACs’ impact
David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, which favors public financing of campaigns, noted that weak fundraising by candidates has served to amplify the impact of super PACs, which would have had much less influence if they had existed in 2008.
“There seems to be very little excitement among voters in the donor class about these candidates,” Donnelly said. “What that gets replaced with is this new phenomenon of people writing huge checks in support of the candidates. You’re replacing excitement with those who have a huge amount of money.”
Candidates have yet to report their official February fundraising totals to the FEC, but all signs point to another modest month. The Romney campaign has said it raised $11.5 million and spent about as much, while former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) says he raised $9 million on the strength of several primary victories.
During the same month in 2008, by comparison, Obama brought in $57 million and had $39 million in cash on hand heading into March during his epic primary battle with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), FEC reports show. Obama is unlikely to come anywhere close to that total in this campaign.
The surge of spending by super PACs this year has prompted calls for greater restrictions on such groups, which were ushered into existence by a series of court rulings that upended decades of campaign-finance regulations.
But Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman who heads the Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes many campaign-finance regulations, said the relatively low fundraising and spending levels this year suggest that the criticism is misplaced.
“Much of the outcry over these decisions really is not warranted,” Smith said. “The idea that we would be awash and drowning in political ads has not really come true.”
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.
Update: Nov. 7, 2012
New | Nov. 2012
New | Oct, 2012
New | Sept. 2012
Here are some suggestions for teaching and learning about the 2012 election season, followed by selected New York Times features and Learning Network lesson plans. Bookmark this page: we’ll be adding activity ideas and resources as the march to the White House proceeds, and will link from here to all the election resources we publish.
Meanwhile, we’d love to hear from you! Please share how you’re approaching the election with students in the comment box below.
Our Election 2012 Unit
We’ve designed our Election 2012 Unit to put teenagers front and center of this election. Students become the researchers, speechwriters and strategists of the competing campaign teams, and in the process they look critically at the candidates, issues and tactics used in this election.
Within each of four mini-units, teachers will find warm-up activities, research tasks, final projects, and handouts, and they can add or subtract pieces or further scaffold to fit their individual classes, time frames and curricular demands.
Mini-Unit 1: Who are the candidates?
Project: Candidate Profiles
Students research one candidate and retool his campaign to appeal to younger voters by creating brochures, slide shows, biographies or Facebook pages or other social media strategies to introduce him.
Mini-Unit 2: What are the issues?
Projects: Issue-Based Campaign Materials and Debate
Students survey each other on the issues that matter to them, then research one or more of these issues in order to create campaign materials like buttons, advertising, brochures or posters around it. They then debate the issues, either from the candidates’ point of view or their own.
Mini-Unit 3: How are the candidates trying to win the election?
Projects: Argumentative Essay and Campaign Speech
Students critique campaign ads to analyze how the candidates this year are attempting to appeal to voters, then focus on one campaign strategy to write an essay answering the question, “Which candidate is running the better campaign?” They then write campaign speeches for the candidate they have researched.
Mini-Unit 4: What Do You Think?
Projects: Student Editorial and Mock Election
Students conduct a one-question interview on views about the election so far, then write an editorial in which they tell why they think one of the candidates should be elected. They then use the materials they have created and what they have learned so far to run a mock election.
Ten More Ideas for Teaching the Election
In addition to our Election Unit, we also have ten more suggestions for how you can teach the election in your classroom. Some of these ideas are incorporated within the unit described above.
1. Create Candidate Profiles
Where do the presidential candidates stand on issues? How are they represented and defined in the media, and how accurate are those portrayals? What factors, including personal characteristics like hairstyles and dress as well as campaign theme songs, contribute to the candidates’ images? Create a class wiki profiling the presidential candidates.
2. Do Election Math
Look at the campaign season through a mathematical lens by following the delegate count, and then use the data to make projections or by examining the role that money plays in politics by investigating whether there is a correlation between campaign donations and poll numbers. Or, using the electoral map, map out various routes to the White House by examining states populations, the number of electoral votes each state has and how many electoral votes a candidate needs to win the presidency. Then determine which combinations of states could yield a victory. Create infographics that effectively tell the story of the election thus far. Also, look into what happens if the Republican convention ends up being brokered.
3. Explore the Art of Political Speechwriting and Delivery
Examine a presidential candidate’s stump speech, looking specifically at word choice and how it relates to meaning and effectiveness. Then write an original stump speech for a presidential candidate that uses similar oratorical approaches as the presidential candidates themselves use in their stump speeches. Finally, create an interactive version of your speech that provides explanatory annotations about the rhetorical moves you are making and their intended effect.
4. Play Campaign News Games
Play campaign bingo or conduct a scavenger hunt by finding particular pieces of campaign news in an online or print edition of the Times.
5. Explore the Issues
Choose one issue of interest and examine each of the candidates’ stances on the issue. Create an issue booklet or Web site that maps out and describes – and perhaps even compares – each candidate’s views, platform and history on this issue. You might even include how, if at all, the candidate has evolved on the issue over time. Additionally, students can work to develop their own position on this issue and write a letter to the editor or create a video that offers their personal take on the topic.
6. Examine Debate Strategies
Watch excerpts from the presidential debates, paying particular attention to candidates’ rhetorical moves and commonly heard themes or phrases. Then mine the debates for examples of issue- and character-based arguments as well as spin. After analyzing candidates’ approaches to debating, discuss which debate moves were the most and least effective. Hold either a mock debate in which students take on the roles of presidential candidates or a mock post-debate “spin room” session, with students playing candidate staffers. During debates, they can take advantage of the “second screen” phenomenon and monitor Facebook, Twitter and other social media to see what viewers are saying in real time. They can also try live-“tweeting” or live-blogging a debate, focusing on key phrases and moments, or pulling together a narrative of Twitter posts using a tool like Storify.
7. Investigate Polling and Projection Data
Examine the results of a recent poll or a selection of recent polls, particularly ones that have accompanying graphics. Hunt for trends in the polling data. What trends exist across different groups? What opportunities do these polls point to for each of the candidates? What polling results are surprising? Write letters to the editor, or letters of advice to the political party of presidential candidate of your choice, focusing on the one or two trends in the polling data that you think are the most significant. Alternatively, examine one of Nate Silver’s data analyses on his blog, FiveThirtyEight, and then discuss his analysis. On what factors does Mr. Silver base his predictions? Has he been right in the past?
8. Create a Youth Campaign
Reflect on your political ideology, your stance on important campaign issues and your political party affiliation. Draw on your political identity and ideology to develop a campaign designed to get teenagers not yet eligible to vote involved in the election. For example, they might get involved in a campaign like “Why Tuesday?” or “#16tovote,” or they might participate in a rally or other event.
9. Investigate Young Voters’ Role
Consider what young voters are saying a selection of opinion pieces written by young people about the upcoming elections and how their level of involvement so far compares with youth involvement in the 2008 election. Then conduct a series of interviews to better understand how young voters in your community are approaching the 2012 race. Create a short documentary that tells the story of how young people in your community are approaching the election.
10. Follow Campaign News
Follow news of the presidential campaign on a digital or timeline, Facebook page or Twitter feed over time, and engage in class discussion along the way. Along with adding breaking news, add weekly photographs to your feed to help tell the story of the campaign and provide material for analysis. Fact-check statements made by politicians on the class page whenever they hear something questionable. On Twitter, they can use the hashtag #asknyt to submit candidate comments made during debates that they think merit some scrutiny.
The Politics section includes, along with daily news stories, the political news blog The Caucus and the data analysis blog FiveThirtyEight, as well as candidate profiles, primary results by state, political polls and more.
Visit the politics video channel for videos that capture specific elements of the campaign in footage and explanation.
The Learning Network’s civics section contains lesson plans pertaining to the presidency and government, including numerous activities related to past elections as well as the current election season.
In addition, you can read about our list of free Web sites for teaching the election.
Selected lesson plans and other resources are below.
2012 Election: Lesson Plans
Ways to Engage: Election Night
Teaching the Election in the Final Week: Bellwethers, Unicorns and Attack Ads
Reader Idea | Students Create Video Ads for Historical Presidential Elections
Ideas for Addressing Mormonism in the Classroom
Teaching With the Presidential Debates
Matters of the Latter Day: Ideas for Addressing Mormonism in the Classroom
Ideas for English Language Learners | Election 2012
Follow the Money: Understanding ‘Super PAC’ Spending in Politics
The United States of Numeracy: The Math of a Presidential Campaign
The Vice President as a Teenager: A Lesson à la ‘Saturday Night Live’
On the Stump: Examining the Form and Function of Campaign Speeches
Character vs. Characterization: Examining How Candidates and Politicians Are Defined
First Contest of the Year: Following the Iowa Caucuses
10 Ways to Teach About Election Day
The 2012 Election: Other Resources
Student Opinion Question | Who Do You Hope Wins the Election?
6 Q’s About the News | Voter ID Laws and Election 2012
Our Student Opinion Questions: “What Is Your Reaction to the First Presidential Debate?” the second presidential debate and the third?
Student Crossword | on Election 2012
Matching Quiz | Presidential Election History
Great Free Election Web Sites
Student Opinion Question | How Would the Presidential Campaigns Change if the Voting Age Were 13?
Student Opinion Question | Does Mitt Romney’s High School Bullying Matter?
Student Opinion Question | What if Your Parent Ran for President?
Student Opinion Question | Which Republican Candidate Will Win the Presidential Nomination?
6 Q’s About the News | Romney Chooses His Running Mate
6 Q’s About the News | Three Key States, Split Evenly
6 Q’s About the News | Vice-Presidential Speculation
6 Q’s About the News | What a Poll Can Tell You About the National Mood
6 Q’s About the News | The Republican Primary Map After Super Tuesday
Elections in General
Reader Idea | Students Create Video Ads for Historical Presidential Elections
When It Counts: Getting Involved in Election Issues
Party Like It’s 1992 or ’84 or ’76 or ’68: Creating a Party Timeline
The Political Is Personal: Exploring Your Own Personal Political Philosophy
When the Personal Becomes Presidential: Reflecting on the Qualities Of a Good Leader
Are We There Yet?: Analyzing the Public Perception of Politicians
Character Study: Considering the Morals of Leading Politicians
We the People?: Acting Out the Roles of Campaign Representatives and Superdelegates
President Obama’s Election and First Term
One Year Later: Grading President Obama
Presidential Report Card: Examining the Nation’s Response to the First 100 Days of the Obama Presidency
Promises and Priorities: Analyzing President Obama’s Priorities During His First 100 Days
Hope in a Capsule: Considering the Events Surrounding the Inauguration of the 44th President
Perks and Perils: Considering Life as a “White House Kid”
An Oath to the Ages: Watching and Analyzing Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech
A Tale of Two Leaders: Comparing the U.S. Economic Challenges in 1933 and Today
From the Post Office to the Oval Office: Considering How a Letter Reaches the President’s Desk
Taking a Peek in the Cabinet: Discussing the Positions that Make Up a Presidential Cabinet
History in the Making: Discovering the Social History of the United States
In Our Own Words
And the Winner Is …: Discussing the Results of the 2008 Presidential Election
The 2008 Presidential Election
Raw Endorsement: Exploring the Role that New York Times Endorsements Have Played in Presidential Elections Throughout History
What to Watch for on Election Night: Evaluating Battleground States On the Map
A Long Division?: Interviewing Community Members on Their Personal Views of Presidential Candidates
There’s Something Funny About These Candidates: Learning About the Power of Caricature
The Science of Politics:Evaluating the Presidential Candidates’ Policies on Science, Technology and Health Issues
Fight Night: Considering Negative Campaign Tactics
The Vice Voice: Investigating the Role and Duties of the Vice President of the United States
Strengthening Your Funny Bone: Analyzing Election Humor
Free Speech: Sharing Opinions and Feedback about Barack Obama’s Speech on Race
Scandalous?: Examining the Controversy of 2008 Times Coverage of John McCain
A Show of Support: Discussing the Results of 2008’s Super Tuesday
Si, Se Puede!: Looking at the Growing Influence of Hispanic and Latino Communities in U.S. Politics
The Primary Issue: Conducting Thorough Inquiries into the 2008 Election
Where Do They Stand?: Researching the Positions of Candidates
Taking Them on Faith?: Learning About the Importance of Presidential Candidates’ Religious Beliefs
Future Voters of America: Forming Your Own Opinions on Controversial Issues
Related Student Crosswords and Quizzes
Matching Quiz | Presidential Election History
United States Presidents
The Electoral Process
America’s First Ladies
Voting in the U.S.A.
The U.S. Congress
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.