STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Mitt Romney and the Republican Party have lately been raising more money than President Obama and the Democrats. They won the money chase in May and in June. Normally, you would expect the incumbent to raise far more money.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And President Obama's campaign promptly warned supporters that he could lose without more cash. Though the Democrats have still raised more in the overall campaign, this led us to ask: How much does a fundraising advantage matter?
INSKEEP: We're putting that question to Mark McKinnon. He's a strategist who's spent a lot of campaign money while advising George W. Bush running for president in 2000, 2004. Hi, Mark.
MARK MCKINNON: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: We're also talking with Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and advisor to many candidates. Welcome back to the program to you as well.
MARK MELLMAN: Thanks. Pleasure to be here.
INSKEEP: OK. People have talked in terms of this being a billion-dollar presidential campaign, if you take in the various sources of money. We don't actually know that it's going to be literally that. But do you need that much money to run a presidential campaign?
MCKINNON: Actually, the number's more like a minimum of $4 billion when you add up all the PACs and special interest money that's going to be spent on this campaign. No, you don't need that much money. It's ridiculous. This is so much money than has ever been spent historically. I was the guy in charge of the advertising in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, and I can tell that 75 percent of that money was completely wasted.
INSKEEP: Mark Mellman.
MELLMAN: Well, Mark's right. Eighty percent of what we do in a campaign is wasted. The problem is we don't know which 80 percent in advance, so we do it all. And that's exactly what these campaigns are doing. They're raising every dollar they can to spend every dollar they can. Does it all matter? No. But nobody's going to be able to sit here today and say in advance that any particular difference in spending won't make the ultimate difference on Election Day.
INSKEEP: When you talk about wasted money, what do you mean, Mark McKinnon? How's a way that you waste money?
MCKINNON: Voters are highly cynical about political advertising generally, and that's particularly true in a presidential campaign. And voters in presidential campaigns really are paying very close attention. This is not like a congressional or Senate race, where they don't really pay attention to the very end. People are - they're watching what's happening in the press. So, the political advertising, they discount. And if you live in a swing state, you're seeing political ads wall-to-wall now like you used to back in September, October in presidential campaigns past. So, at a certain point, it just becomes completely white noise.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you about that, though, because during the Republican primaries, we did have this pattern where there would be a new candidate who would pop up. He'd get way ahead of Mitt Romney. Romney would spend a few million dollars, and suddenly that guy would drop back down again. Negative ads would be used. There were even occasions where Romney was seemingly knocked off his stride by negative ads.
MCKINNON: Yeah, big difference, though, I would say between the primaries and the general election. I mean, that was a place where Mitt Romney could really use his money to advantage. But in a general election, I'd argue that it's a different equation, and there's so much information out there and people are just overwhelmed. And as a result, there's just a lot of wasted dollars.
MELLMAN: Mark's right. The primaries are different. The general elections are different. But the fundamental fact is this: nobody can sit here today in what would otherwise be a close race and say that extra million, five million, 10 million, $50 million might not make the difference of a few hundred votes in Florida, a few hundred votes in Ohio or Nevada, whatever. And Mark has been to elections where a few hundred votes in a particular state made all the difference between winning and losing.
INSKEEP: I'm curious, Mark Mellman: When you say 80 percent of the money is wasted, but you don't know which 80 percent, do you mean that you put, say, 10 campaign ads out there, and you've been very careful. You've done your polling. You've done your focus-grouping, but in the end, you really don't know which one of those 10 is going to be effective, which one's going to backfire...
MELLMAN: Well, we do, because we're very good, and we know exactly which ones are going to work. But the truth is...
INSKEEP: At least 20 percent of the time.
MELLMAN: We know which ones are going to be more effective, which ones are going to be less effective by and large, but the fundamental fact is you're buying huge amounts of them. You know, we used to buy what would be called 500 gross rating points of an ad and say: You know what? That's enough to get it across.
INSKEEP: A gross rating point: That's a certain number of people out there.
MELLMAN: That represents an effect that the average person would see the ad about five times. Today, we buy three times that much for the average ad for it to be able to get through to people. So, the reality is there has been this arms race escalation. But, again, that's not the only thing that money gets spent on. It gets spent on a whole variety of activities that campaigns undertake. And, again, each one has a role. There's somebody in the campaign advocating for teach one of those activities, saying: You know what? This could make a 10-vote difference, a 20-vote difference, a 50-vote difference. And it's very hard to say absolutely not, won't make any difference at all.
MCKINNON: Yes. And, Steve, you're right. I mean, you don't want to be the guy on the campaign who said, you know, let's hold off on that last million dollars in Ohio and then lose by 200 votes. You know, sometimes, we don't even get the gross-rating points that Mark's talking about because what we're really trying to do is affect the media narrative, create an overall impression, an overall narrative that stitches together the story that you're trying to tell.
INSKEEP: You're saying that you put out an ad, and whether one million people see it, 10 million people see it or hardly anybody even remembers it, at least the reporters will be aware that you're putting out this particular message, and it will seep into their story somewhere.
MCKINNON: That's exactly right. I mean, sometimes, we just put out an ad, and it'll only be up for a day. And we knew that it wouldn't get seen by voters, but it would get coverage by reporters.
MELLMAN: But look what's happened with the Obama campaign and the attacks on Romney with respect to his stewardship of Bain Capital and the decisions, the business decisions he made that ended up hurting a lot of average folks: a lot of crossfire in the press about that - some from a few Democrats, some from reporters, editorialists, others. But you see where those ads have actually been on the air in swing states, it's made a difference. It's really damaged Mitt Romney's image, and it's helped Obama take the lead in some of those important swing states. So, again, an example where the media didn't necessarily pick up on the narrative the way the campaign would have liked, but the ads themselves did make some measurable difference.
MCKINNON: And I would just add to that, that that Bain story is the narrative that Obama campaign is trying to establish, and they've done a pretty effective job of it. And they've done it by spending very heavily, very early. And that's when you can have the most impact, which is exactly what we did against John Kerry in 2004.
INSKEEP: So, is there a real possibility that President Obama, an incumbent president - and incumbents usually have plenty of resources - is there a real possibility he could be outspent this fall?
MELLMAN: Well, I think there's a real possibility. We don't know for sure yet, obviously. There's several months yet to go of fundraising. But it is possible that that in the aggregate, when you take all this billionaire money and add it to what's actually being raised by the campaigns, it is possible the president gets outspent.
MCKINNON: It's absolutely possible. And just to give you an example of how distorted things are, Steve: The Koch brothers, by themselves, will spend more money in this election cycle than the entire presidential campaign of John McCain in 2008.
INSKEEP: That's a lot of money.
MCKINNON: It's a hell of a lot of money.
INSKEEP: But then the next question comes: Could that matter? Could that fundraising edge actually change the result of the election, given what you're saying about how much is wasted and about how well the people already know the candidates involved?
MCKINNON: I think at the end of the day, they're very formidable candidates. They have strong support in their own parties. They're going to have huge fundraising. I don't think that there will be a measurable advantage for either candidate. So, in the end, I don't think it's going to make that much difference.
MELLMAN: But, again, I would argue very hard to know today, in a race that's very close, could those extra 5, 10, 20, $50 million make a difference of a few hundred votes in a few states that make all the difference at the end of the day? The answer is, yes, they could. We won't really know until after Election Day just how much influence they had.
MCKINNON: I mean, it could come down to, you know, three electoral votes in a, you know, a state like New Mexico. And there, five or 10 or $15 million goes a long way if you want to just pick off a few hundred votes.
INSKEEP: So write those checks now.
MCKINNON: Don't sit on your wallets. Get it out if you want to win.
MELLMAN: It does make a difference. Money's not everything, but it's a big thing.
INSKEEP: Mark McKinnon and Mark Mellman, Democratic and Republican strategists. Thanks very much.
MELLMAN: Thank you.
MCKINNON: Thanks, Steve.
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INSKEEP: And you've heard them both right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.