Wisconsin’s recall election showed us that depending solely on a ground game will not win an election. A campaign also needs a media and messaging focus in order to drive supporters to the polls. But to execute a robust media strategy your campaign needs to raise significant amounts of money.
That doesn’t mean political fundraising is the be all and end all of a campaign. It’s simply the fuel to power the other activities. A campaign team has to execute on all fronts in order to be successful, not just fundraising. The political landscape is strewn with the wreckage of wealthy candidates who out spent their competitors by considerable margins, and still didn't win their races. Looking at Wisconsin, you cannot credit Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) success on Tuesday solely to the fact that he had more to spend on his campaign.
Republicans didn’t start the money war in Wisconsin, unions did. Labor fired the first shots when they used their members' dues to pay for the protests and collection of names on the recall petitions. Walker's team simply responded by running an effective fundraising campaign.
Wisconsin allows political fundraisers to raise unlimited amounts from donors up to 60 days before Election Day. Walker's finance team reasonably targeted high net worth individuals who really cared about the outcome in Wisconsin during this period.
Fundraising from well-heeled supporters is the most effective way for a campaign to get the best return on their fundraising efforts. It’s much, much harder and more expensive to go after lots of little gifts than a few major gifts. Just ask your local college or museum.
Tom Barrett, Walker’s Democratic challenger, was not an effective fundraiser. He didn’t build a fundraising network of bundlers, nor did he make successful calls to the big donors he needed to support his race. For those keeping track at home, the final fundraising score was Walker $30 million, Barrett $4 million.
Based on what we saw in Wisconsin, let’s look ahead at the presidential contest.
Mitt Romney is focusing heavily on fundraising and messaging. In fact, his team outraised President Obama in May – $76.8 million to $60 million.
Based on Romney's FEC filings to date, his fundraising strategy seems to be to go after max-out donors. Now that he’s through the primaries, I’m sure we’ll see him taking in a greater number of smaller gifts (less than $200).
Obama, on the other hand, is focusing on organizing his ground game.
In 2008, Obama had lightning in a bottle in terms of messaging and gaining supporters, which allowed him to focus on the ground game and GOTV activities. His strategy this cycle is following the same path. In terms of fundraising, he’s focusing on soliciting $3-$5 gifts in an effort to identify supporters to re-solicit in the future.
Romney's campaign is being run more like a media company and using messaging to drive support and voter action. All things being equal, if Romney and Obama's messages resound equally with voters, I would place my money on Romney.
The political environment is more favorable to Republicans. His fundraising is accelerating with every monthly FEC filing. And his team is focusing on messaging, messaging, messaging.
If the campaigns continue down their current paths and we don't see any black swans in the next five months, Obama will be a one-term president -- and it won't have anything to do with how much money he raised.
Erik currently runs sales and marketing for CMDI, the largest Republican fundraising technology platform. Prior to joining CMDI, Erik founded numerous fundraising technology companies whose products have raised over $300 million for hundreds of political and cause-based organizations.
A version of this post was also published on CMDI’s blog.