Obama pleaded poverty but spent as much as Romney

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama hugs his campaign manager, Jim Messina, during an unannounced stop at campaign headquarters in Chicago, Ill., Nov. 7, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • The final tally shows that both candidates in #election2012 had slightly more than $1 billion behind them.

    Tweet This

  • If you count only the money the candidates controlled, Team Obama outspent Team Romney by almost $200 million.

    Tweet This

  • Team Obama dominated Team Romney in campaign spending. Outside groups basically evened the score.

    Tweet This

Throughout the campaign, President Obama complained that he was being outspent by Mitt Romney, but the final tally shows that both candidates had slightly more than $1 billion behind them. If you count only the money the candidates controlled, Team Obama outspent Team Romney by almost $200 million.

Obama for America, Obama's official campaign committee, spent $684 million on the 2012 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- that's $250 million more than Romney for President, which spent $433 million. Put another way, Obama's campaign outspent Romney's campaign by about 58 percent.

But the official campaigns weren't the only organizations under the control of the nominees. Add in the other groups, and Obama's lead narrows -- a bit. The Republican National Committee outspent the Democratic National Committee $300 million to $285 million.

Then there were the super-PACs: Priorities USA for Obama and Restore Our Future for Romney. Legally, these PACs were separate from the campaigns and parties, but in reality they were arms of the campaigns. And they could accept unlimited donations.

Romney's super-PAC, Restore our Future, spent $143 million, but that's not the relevant number. About $40 million of that money went to attacking his primary opponents Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Counting only the money supporting Romney or attacking Obama, Restore Our Future spent about $103 million, compared with $66 million for Obama's Priorities USA.

Obama for America, the DNC and Priorities USA constitute Team Obama. Romney's campaign, the RNC and Restore Our Future constitute Team Romney. All told, Team Obama outspent Team Romney $1.03 billion to $836 million -- or 24 percent.

You never would have guessed it, though, from listening to Obama. "I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far," Obama wrote in June. At the time, though, he was outspending Romney, and in the end he outspent Romney. Still, his fundraising pleas warned darkly of being "drastically outspent."

Not all the money spent on the presidential election was under Obama's or Romney's control. Outside groups also spent millions. Karl Rove's Crossroads poured $91 million into the effort to unseat Obama. Planned Parenthood spent about $12 million to re-elect Obama.

This outside spending favored Romney, just enough to close the gap. Comb through Federal Election Commission data, and piece together all the money spent for or against Romney and Obama, and you get basically a tie: $1.095 billion on Obama's side, and $1.089 billion on Romney's side.

But this overstates the pro-Romney side, because so much of Romney's money was dedicated to winning the primary -- at least $75 million -- and only some of that can be counted in the Romney-vs.-Obama money race.

Pro-Romney spending, whether in the primary or the general, should count in this calculus -- but not the negative advertising Romney ran during the GOP primary. While we can categorize super-PAC spending by whether it was pro-Romney or anti-Gingrich, for instance, we have no such breakdown for the money Romney's campaign committee spent. But it's safe to say many millions of Romney's $433 million went to attacking other Republicans.

Also, Romney had to spend millions on primaries in nonswing states. In South Carolina, for instance, Team Romney spent a combined $4.7 million, according to an NBC News analysis. In the Illinois primary, Team Romney spent more than $2.5 million.

Obama, meanwhile, didn't have to spend money to win his nomination, except for some negligible filing fees. Every penny of Obama's billion dollars went to winning the general election.

Ultimately, we don't know exactly how much money was spent on whose side in the presidential race, thanks to "dark money" groups.

While super-PACs have to disclose their donors and spending, organizations can avoid disclosure requirements if they refrain from expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. So, instead of "Vote Romney," change your message to "Call President Obama and tell him to stop ruining the American economy," and voila: no FEC filings for you.

Most estimates give Romney a big edge in dark money, but these estimates are misleading because they are derived from advertising purchases. The dark-money arm of Obama's Priorities USA didn't spend its money on TV ads, so its spending is even more opaque than that of other dark-money groups. The liberal Mother Jones estimates Priorities USA's dark-money arm spent about $30 million to $35 million.

Team Obama dominated Team Romney in campaign spending. Outside groups basically evened the score. Obama's tales to the contrary were all fiction -- a fiction much of the country was ready to believe.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Timothy P.
  • Timothy P. Carney helps direct AEI’s Culture of Competition Project, which examines barriers to competition in all areas of American life, from the economy to the world of ideas. Carney has over a decade of experience as a journalist covering the intersection of politics and economics. His work at AEI focuses on how to reinvigorate a competitive culture in America in which all can reap the benefits of a fair economy.


    Follow Timothy Carney on Twitter.

  • Email: timothy.carney@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.