MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Republicans have a not-so-secret weapon in their effort to defeat President Obama: billionaires. The super rich have ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars so far, much of it in checks of half a million or more. With the help of these big spenders, outside groups allied with Republicans have vastly outraised and outspent similar Democratic groups.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports on why the Democrats can't come up with their own bunch of billionaires.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The big story of this year's election campaign is big money. Since the courts have made it easier for corporations, unions, and rich individuals to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money Republicans have seized the advantage. Right now, when spending on television ads counts the most, Republican allied groups are outspending their Democratic counterparts by 8-to-1. The economy may be the single most important factor in this election but money is a close second.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE ISRAEL: The only thing that keeps me up at night is the tsunami of secret Republican superPAC money that will be spent against our candidates.
LIASSON: That's New York Congressman Steve Israel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Outside money matters even more in down ballot races for House and Senate. Just a small handful of independent groups backed by Republican billionaires - like oil magnates David and Charles Koch or casino magnate Sheldon Adelson - could together raise close to $1 billion this year.
But the main superPAC supporting the president, Priorities USA, has struggled to raise even a small fraction of that. Democratic strategist Paul Begala helps Priorities raise money.
PAUL BEGALA: I just keep running into the brick wall. I'm happy to do it again, I'll do it again tomorrow. But that is the reality.
LIASSON: So why are Democrats losing the money war? There are several answers, the simplest is supply. There are more rich Republicans than rich Democrats - a lot more. And says Begala, there are other reasons.
BEGALA: Second, there's no self-interest here. Jeffrey Katzenberg is our largest donor. He gave us $2 million. He's not going to sell any more tickets to "Kung Fu Panda 2" if Obama gets a second term. There's a return on investment for some of the coal and oil billionaires, who want to see the president's clean energy initiative shut down. But the third thing is the deep ambivalence that I and everybody else on my side of the aisle has about superPACs.
LIASSON: It's an ambivalence President Obama famously shared. After telling independent groups to stand down in 2008, he welcomed them back this year. But that hasn't overcome the hesitation of liberal billionaires like Peter Lewis. His spokesman, Jen Frutchy, says Lewis would rather fund progressive think tanks and media groups than television ads.
JEN FRUTCHY: On superPACs, he really believes that the idea of spending fortunes to denigrate opponents is deeply offensive. That is just is not how he wants to spend his fortune, you know, in some kind of arms race. He does not want to be part of the negativity or any kind of corrupting influence that money can have on the electoral process.
LIASSON: This widespread Democratic aversion to the brave new world of unlimited campaign money is a big obstacle for people who raise money for Democratic campaigns, like the DCCC Steve Israel.
ISRAEL: I will confess that this frustrates me, where you have people like the Koch brothers or Karl Rove who will spend anything to defeat Democrats. We do have Democratic allies who are saying that, you know, we don't like Republican superPACs, and therefore, we shouldn't contribute to Democratic allied superPACs.
I'm a huge fan of baseball and I've never been to a baseball game in history where only one side gets bats and gloves. If you want to win the game, you got to have bats, you got to have gloves, you got to have resources.
LIASSON: There's also another reason that's harder to quantify.
CARL ESKEW: A lot of these donors are disappointed in the president.
LIASSON: That's Democratic strategist Carter Eskew. It could be hedge fund managers mad about the president's criticism of Wall Street or liberals who wanted him to close Guantanamo, or big Democratic donors who want to be treated like something more than an ATM machine. Eskew says while Republican donors tend to give for rational reasons - financial self-interest, for example - Democrats are different.
ESKEW: They like the personal relationship. They like the feeling of importance. They like getting invited to the White House. So why aren't they giving? They haven't been stroked enough or they don't feel the president has done enough on some of their pet causes.
LIASSON: White House aides reject the notion that Mr. Obama hasn't spent enough time cultivating donors. As a matter of fact, they point out he's appeared at more fundraising events than any previous incumbent.
Then there's another question: In a close race, how big a financial advantage does one side need to get a political advantage? After all, the unions and the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign will raise over a billion dollars. The Republicans all in will raise more, but how much more matters? Here's Democratic strategist Tad Devine.
TAD DEVINE: Unless the Republicans can get to 2-to-1 or 3-to-1, in terms of a spending ratio, I don't think they're going to have a real advantage. But if they do outspend the Democratic side - the way President Obama, you know, outspent his opponent four years ago, the way Bush outspent Kerry and Gore in the two previous elections - then I think that, more than anything, will be the reason why Romney could succeed.
If you just look at the spending in presidential campaigns, you will see that the relationship between outspending your opponent and winning is the most intense thing in politics.
LIASSON: But we won't know exactly how big of an advantage the Republicans and their outside groups have this year. That's because in addition to being unlimited and anonymous, much of the money won't be reported until after the election.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.