Now that Barack Obama has officially opted out of the public financing system for the fall campaign, the Obama-McCain race is almost certain to feature a gaping bankroll disparity between the candidates.
If McCain opts into the public system anyway, his post-convention campaign spending will be capped at about $85 million, which would be supplemented by money raised by the Republican National Committee. If he were to opt out, he’d be faced with the prospect of an endless parade of fund-raising events, since he lacks Obama’s ability to raise $10 million online at the snap of a finger. And given McCain’s fund-raising performance to date, $85 million might be a stretch for him anyway. Obama, meanwhile, could conceivably raise $200 million – or more – on his own for the fall.
So either way (and even with the R.N.C. doing its part), McCain is going to be dramatically outspent. No doubt he will try to make a virtue of this and he and his campaign will miss no opportunity to remind the press and the public of how much Obama is spending. If a poll in mid-September shows him running a few points behind, McCain will crow that it’s great news "when you consider that my opponent is outspending me 3-to-1." Hillary Clinton’s campaign played this same card throughout the spring. McCain will also try to make it look like Obama is going back on his word, since he previously indicated a willingness to participate in the public system.
But the real impact of Obama’s money, potentially, is the uncomfortable decisions it could force upon the McCain campaign. With an almost endless bankroll, Obama would be free to invest resources in states that previous Democratic nominees, who relied on the public system, wrote off as not likely to produce a pay-off. This fall, though, Obama will be free to invest in "reach" states without detracting from his efforts in Ohio, Michigan and the other swing states.
But McCain will have to be more disciplined. If Obama uses his money to radically expand the playing field, McCain will not be able to keep pace. If Obama targets a new state and McCain responds by investing his own resources, it will necessarily mean less McCain money in vital battleground states.
Just how much could Obama expand the map? Besides Virginia and Colorado, the two generally-accepted new swing states of ’08, he can make a play for North Carolina, Louisiana, and maybe even Mississippi – Southern states where a massive jump in black turnout could bring him within striking distance. Were he to add Sam Nunn to his ticket, Georgia could fall into this category too. Some western states, like Montana and North Dakota, could be targeted, too.
And then there’s this: A new poll shows McCain running only four points ahead of Obama in…Alaska. If Alaska is potentially in play, there may be no limit to the number of states where Obama’s money could make McCain’s situation unpleasant.