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Money, not ideology, defeated Romney, McCain, & Dole

Obama used his money advantage to run a historically devisive campaign.
Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Recently, Texas Senator Ted Cruz launched into an analysis on Republican moderate presidential candidates. He claimed Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney lost because they did not offer a clear choice from the Democrat. Essentially, Cruz claimed the three men were not conservative enough. However, Cruz's analysis fails to acknowledge other factors that cost the Republican candidates their respective elections. The most important component of the Democratic victories was not ideology or even incumbency. Rather, the Democrats held a major financial advantage in all three contests. The Democratic financial advantage allowed the party to define their Republican opponents thereby guaranteeing the election victories. In the end, the Democratic candidates did not win the elections and the Republican candidates did not lose them. Rather, Democratic money won those three contests.

The 1994 Republican landslide panicked the Clinton White House. Bill Clinton had a rough first two years with little to show. Although he did pass the Family And Medical Act and the North American Free Trade Agreement, he angered Americans with tax increases and his failed Health Care initiative. Additionally, the Black Hawk Down incident, Waco siege, bungling of gays in the military, and a series of scandals made Clinton look incompetent. The Republican takeover began Clinton's comeback, but no one knew it at the time.

In early 1995, people questioned whether Clinton was relevant. He appeared headed for defeat in 1996. Clinton changed his fortunes with Republican help. The president told adviser Dick Morris that the Democrats had dragged him so far to the left that he "did not recognize himself." So, Clinton began to adopt Republican policies such as welfare reform and a balanced budget. The G.O.P. congress inadvertently helped Clinton out in this process. People liked the policies and the economy began to move.

Clinton shunned the Democratic left for the Republican right, but had to distinguish himself in order to win re-election. As a result, Clinton painted the Republicans as extremists with an aggressive ad campaign. However, the Democrats were hampered by federal spending rules. The Washington Post reported on February 9, 1997 that the president decided to circumvent campaign finance laws to raise additional cash and run ads early to attack the Republicans. As a result, the White House raised money by renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, shaking down Buddhist temples, and holding expensive White House coffees. This allowed the Clinton campaign to spend an additional $44 million on the re-election. The Washington Post continued, "fueled with cash, the ads would air virtually nonstop from October until the Democratic convention."

While Clinton Incorporated raked in the money and spent it on attack ads, the Republicans battled in the primaries. Bob Dole outlasted his rivals to become the nominee, but the May 22, 1996 edition of the New York Times reported that Dole approached the $37 million primary spending limit by May. Clinton did not have primary challenger and had $24 million to spend until the August convention. This did not include the cash the president accumulated through his creative fundraising. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) reported that Dole officially outspent Clinton in the general election by a small margin. However, the president actually out raised Dole when these alternative sources, funneled through the Democratic National Committee, are included. Additionally, Dole ran out of money before the conventions meaning Clinton ran anti-Dole, anti-Republican attack ads for nearly 10 months before the Dole camp could even start their election campaign. In the end, Clinton won the election by 8 1/2% in the popular vote.

President Clinton claimed credit for Republican policies while using his time and money advantage to pummel Senator Dole with negative advertising. Twelve years later, Senator Barack Obama did not try to co-opt Republican ideas, but did unleash an unprecedented revenue stream. At the same time, his opponent, Senator John McCain, was hurt by President George W. Bush's negatives. Bush had become one of the most unpopular presidents in history by 2008. Meanwhile, Obama was a blank slate. People projected what they wanted onto him and did little research on his past or question his credentials. Obama was not qualified for the presidency in 2008. However, the Democratic candidate developed a cult-like following. In the end, he dramatically out raised McCain.

The FEC reported the Obama camp raised $779 million to McCain's $384 million. Per CNN, Obama more than doubled McCain's television expenditures $310 million to $135 million. The Obama camp ran attack ad after attack ad tying McCain to Bush. Despite the advantage in money and the ads, McCain took a lead in the polls in the Real Clear Politics average in early September. Then, the economic meltdown doomed McCain and clearly impacted his fundraising. Bush received the blame for the downturn, which reflected onto McCain. McCain had $47 million to spend in October. Obama raised $150 million in September. The Panic of 2008, Bush's unpopularity, and Obama's fundraising, not ideology, downed McCain.

Obama replicated the money machine four years later and ran one of the dirtiest campaigns in history to win re-election. The incumbent had one of the worst records in history for an incumbent seeking reelection. The economy continued to sputter, people despised Obamacare, and he appeared feckless in the face of foreign leaders. Like Clinton in 1996, Obama had the advantage of incumbency and no primary challenger. Meanwhile, the Republican Party had a donnybrook in the primaries. G.O.P. nominee Mitt Romney was bloodied by the other Republican candidates and handicapped by the process. Romney had to concentrate on his rivals before turning toward the president. Meanwhile, Obama decided to attack Romney early on.

The Obama campaign decided to throw everything at Romney hoping something would stick. They accused the Republican of being a tax cheat, felon, and waging a "war on women." Most Republicans did not think the public would buy the attacks. They did not think people were vacant enough to believe the propaganda. However, the "Kill Romney" approach worked because of the Democrat's financial advantage. FEC reports show Obama earned $722 million to Romney's $448 million in 2012. Obama won the election during the G.O.P. primaries with his ad campaign. The Republicans needed to counter the attacks at that time with their own campaign against the president. Romney did not lose because of ideology. He lost because of the Democratic money machine, Obama campaign propaganda, and a public that allowed themselves to be manipulated by money.

Ideology did not lose the 1996, 2008, and 2012 presidential campaigns for the Republicans. Money led the Democrats to victory. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both outspent their opponents and defined the Republicans before anyone knew what happened. Clinton appeared dead in 1994, but co opted the Republicans and defined Dole as an extremist before the senator could really campaign. Senator Obama tied McCain to the unpopular Bush and watched as the Republican ran out of money when compared to his own coffers. Four years later, President Obama defined Romney and invented a "war on women" before the governor could launch a general election campaign. In the end, the money advantage proved the overwhelming factor in each Democratic victory.