Three days before President Barack Obama holds his first “official” campaign rallies, 200 supporters snacked on cupcakes at an opening of the re-election committee’s Tampa-area office — its 25th in Florida.
After posing for pictures with life-sized cutouts of the president and first lady at the May 2 event, they inked their names on posters requesting volunteers to conduct phone banks, register voters and staff the offices.
Tomorrow, Obama will travel to college campuses in Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Virginia, to mark the start of his general election bid, yet much of the groundwork for the contest already has been quietly put in place.
“In 2012, we have had the benefit of time to put an unprecedented effort on the ground in all 50 states that is registering voters and making sure that voters know what is at stake in this election,” said Katie Hogan, an Obama campaign spokeswoman.
The president’s campaign has spent $94 million, about $16 million more than Mitt Romney has laid out while fending off eight primary challengers, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission data through the end of March compiled by Bloomberg.
Unlike the presumptive Republican nominee’s spending, only $3.7 million of Obama’s cash has gone to television ads. The former Massachusetts governor has outspent the president by almost four to one on that front, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, a political ad tracker based in New York.
Instead, Obama’s money is being invested in infrastructure, the FEC reports show. Obama’s payroll reached about 600 employees in March, while Romney was paying 93 people.
Obama’s campaign machine has 165 offices across the U.S., a review of its website shows, even snatching up Romney’s Iowa headquarters at a former Blockbuster video store in Des Moines once it became available after the Jan. 3 Republican caucuses.
Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Washington- based Georgetown University, said “energizing a base that didn’t hang together over the past four years is very important, and that takes people on the ground as well as a good computer-tracking mechanism like he had in 2008.”
The president’s early on-the-ground presence is evident in states expected to be the most competitive in November: Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Lynnette Acosta, a 33-year-old information technology manager in Orlando, often pulls out her personal mobile phone during weekly phone-banking sessions, leaving the campaign phones free for other volunteers.
Noreen Murphy, a 64-year-old retiree in Valrico, Florida, enters data for the campaign every Monday at its Florida headquarters in Ybor City, Tampa’s historic cigar-making neighborhood.
She does it for free because “it means so much to get this man re-elected,” Murphy said, citing Obama’s healthcare legislation as one of the reasons behind her support.
The campaign has hired more than a dozen developers to analyze data and guide election strategy. At the top of Obama’s payroll, having earned $130,000 since the beginning of the campaign, according to FEC reports, is Michael Slaby, the chief integration and innovation officer who was chief technology officer in 2008.
On average this election cycle, political candidates are expected to earmark 2 cents of every dollar they spend for online buys, while Obama will probably invest triple that amount, said Kip Cassino, executive vice president for research at Borrell Associates, a media analysis firm based in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“Most campaigns are run by folks who haven’t gotten beyond TV,” Cassino said. “However, the Obama campaign has done far, far better. He can literally raise a lot of money just by pushing a button.”
Obama’s online ad presence is orchestrated by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Washington-based company led by Andrew Bleeker, who was director of Internet advertising for Obama’s 2008 campaign. Bully Pulpit has been paid $19 million by the campaign.
The campaign’s fourth-largest category of expenditures so far was on telemarketing services. Five of its top 20 contractors in March were telemarketing firms, FEC reports show.
The Obama campaign has spent $11 million on “postage” — enough to pay the average salaries of 196 U.S. Postal Service city letter-carriers for a year.
The campaign’s second-highest expense, at $18 million, was payment to AB Data, a Milwaukee-based company that specializes in direct-mail fundraising.
The re-election campaign has relied less on consultants than Romney’s has; two of Obama’s top 25 expenses were categorized on FEC reports as “consulting,” for a total of $2.2 million, compared to five of Romney’s, for a total of about $16 million.
That could stem from the fact that the president hasn’t engaged in television advertising yet. Obama’s top political consultant payments include $3.2 million to GMMB Inc., a TV and video ad firm headed by Jim Margolis, who worked on the 2008 campaign, and more than $380,000 to top political strategist David Axelrod’s AKPD Message and Media firm.
All that spending is powered by fundraising that exceeds that of past sitting presidents, writes Brendan J. Doherty, a U.S. Naval Academy professor of politics, in his forthcoming book, “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign.”
Through May 2, Obama had held 133 fundraisers for his re-election campaign or the Democratic National Committee, compared to the campaign total of 86 that George W. Bush held for his 2004 re-election campaign or the Republican National Committee, Doherty said. Bill Clinton held 70 fundraisers for his re-election campaign or the Democratic Party.
Obama had raised $197 million by the end of March, according to FEC reports. Romney had raised $89 million, the reports show.
Obama’s campaign spending supports what campaign employees call “the snowflake effect” of developing teams of community-based, unpaid volunteers who do much of the campaign legwork such as voter registration, phone banking and canvassing.
Acosta, who is a national co-chairwoman of the campaign, estimates that she has personally met with more than 100 people to urge them to support the president. Her efforts stretched to the full-time equivalent of 40 hours a week at times, and she recently appeared in a Spanish-language ad on air in Florida — all for no pay.
Obama’s 2008 Florida director, Steve Schale, said construction of the re-election team is outpacing that of four years ago when the president’s campaign registered more than 200,000 new Democrats in the four months leading to the general election. Obama carried Florida in the 2008 election.
“At this point in the campaign, there was no campaign,” said Schale, noting that there wasn’t a single Florida office open until July. Schale, who founded Schale Strategies LLC in Tallahassee, is not employed by Obama’s campaign.
That advantage increases pressure on Romney to pivot to the general election, said Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University.
“Obama has had months to start putting his pieces on the chessboard, while Romney has been playing one move at a time,” he said.
At the Wednesday office opening, near a strip mall in Riverview outside of Tampa, Elena McCullough greeted supporters she has known for four years.
The 51-year-old Wesley Chapel resident said she door-knocked in 2008. About one year ago, just after Obama announced he’d be running for a second term, she said she called her fellow volunteers: “I said, OK, everybody, it’s time to get back onboard.”
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