The financial battle for the Republican nomination is tightening. Candidates spent a lot of cash in January — what with contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. Also spending a lot of money, as it turns out, were the richly financed superPACS that support the candidates.
Reports filed at the Federal Election Commission on Monday night show just how important a superPAC can be.
Last month, the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised $6.4 million. The pro-Romney superPAC called Restore Our Future raised $6.6 million. And three donors joined a select group that has given the superPAC $500,000 to $1 million each.
"What gave him [Romney] his financial advantage were 25 donors to the superPAC," says Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine.
The only catch is that legally, the campaign and the superPAC can't coordinate their messaging.
An NPR analysis showed Romney's campaign fundraising rose steadily in late 2011 — peaking in December before dropping off this past month.
"For me, the marker is, I look at McCain last time," Corrado says. That is, Sen. John McCain in January 2008, when his presidential campaign was staggering and was almost broke going into the New Hampshire primary. But McCain won New Hampshire, and this year, so did Romney.
Corrado points out, however, that only McCain got a fundraising bounce out of it.
"He ended up with $11 million coming in January, versus this Romney number, which is basically the same number he had last time," Corrado says. "In 2008, if you look at the month of January, he raised $6.4 million in contributions."
The Romney financial report has other red flags: The January 2012 number was down almost half from December.
Romney raised more money than any other candidate from maxed-out donors — those who have hit the legal limit. And those maxed out donors cannot be solicited again.
But the Romney campaign and the pro-Romney superPAC together outspent the rest of the field combined. That includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — plus a superPAC for each of them. The Gingrich and Santorum superPACS finished January in a better financial position than the candidates themselves.
But there were some surprises. Last week, President Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee reported raising $29 million in January. That's down from the Obama campaign's total for January 2008.
And there were some demonstrations of surprising strength.
Michael Malbin, director of the Campaign Finance Institute, cites the report filed by Santorum: He raised twice as much in January as in all of 2011.
"This is a very steep and impressive rise," Malbin says. But he adds that it doesn't mean Santorum can come close to matching Romney's budget.
Back in 2008, Romney put in $40 million of his own money. This time, Malbin says, the big donors to the superPAC are essentially doing it for him.
"Everybody understands that a contribution to this supposedly independent expenditure committee [Restore Our Future] is really a contribution, for all practical purposes, for Romney," Malbin says.
And even if fundraising heats up for the other candidates at this stage, Malbin says, it may be too little, too late.
"Romney has built an organizational machine over the past four years. He's the frontrunner for a reason," Malbin says.
In other words, if Romney's campaign stumbles in the next few weeks, that could be a problem of political messaging, not a problem of having enough money to get that message out.